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The Woes of Having Neighbors

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Rowan Whitethorn wasn’t known for being a people person.  He was standoff-ish, brusque, and unsympathetic to practically everyone and everything.  He didn’t care what other people thought, though.  He had his small band of friends–his cadre–and even if he thought some of them were a bit shadier than the darkest recesses of hell, well … who was he to cast the first stone?  His friends were who they were, and he accepted them–just as they did him. 

Besides his cadre, most knew to stay out of his way.  In fact, there was once a rumor that Rowan’s resting face was so fierce and so unfriendly that it made small children cry.  Again, he didn’t mind.  He liked it, even.  Rowan hated meeting new people and he hated small talk even more.  Almost everyone knew to stay out of his way … everyone, it seemed, except his new neighbor.

The white haired man didn’t know her name, but she lived across the hall from him in apartment 2B.

He hated her.

She was young–younger than him anyway–and so very loud.  Rowan had bumped into her multiple times in the hallway and every time, without a doubt, she’d stop what she was doing and say hello.  If Rowan wasn’t fast enough he’d get trapped in a conversation about the weather.  The idea still gave him nightmares. 

Maybe if it was just that, Rowan would let her slide.  He knew, after all, that most people felt the need to talk to people–even strangers–about such things.  And she was pretty … in an annoying, she knows it so why bother mentioning it sort of way.  So what if a deep, burgundy flush overcame his cheeks and ears whenever he thought about her smile or the way her blue eyes would light up whenever they ran into one another.  Rowan was nothing if not stubborn, after all. 

But it wasn’t just her. Oh no, she had friends that were even louder.  A dark haired girl with a loud laugh.  A boy with long, blond hair who couldn’t seem to walk lightly to save his life. And she had a dog, too, that never seemed to stop its howling.  Her rag-tag group were always in and out of the place, stomping up and down the hallway as if they owned it.  They also seemed compelled to have a party in the apartment every other weekend.  What these people did for a living, Rowan had no idea. 

Then, one day while coming home after a hard day at work, Rowan heard something new down his hallway and his stomach dropped with dread. It was the sound of a piano being played–badly.  It sounded as if a moose was going through labor behind the door of 2B.  Staring at the brass numbers on the door, Rowan clenched his jaw and turned away, intending to retreat into his apartment and drown out the sound with his T.V.  

He froze, hearing a series of keys clash together as if they were breaking and swerved back around and slamming his fist three times against the door.

The music–if he could really call it that–stopped and Rowan could hear soft, steady foot steps coming towards him.  The safety chain rattled on the other side of the door as it was unlocked and then the door opened.  His neighbor–his annoyingly good looking neighbor–stared back at him.  Her blonde hair was tussled and pushed back, and she tilted her head as her large, blue–well mostly blue, Rowan wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw gold in there, too–looked up at him curiously.

Her appearance, however lung-deflating, didn’t deter his anger.  Staring down at her, he sneered and asked very slowly, “What are you doing?”

She quirked a brow, “What am I doing?”  She repeated his question, then smirked in a way that would make lesser men take a step back, “Talking to you, of course.”

Lip curling into a full on grimace, Rowan pushed on, “No–that sound you were making.  With the piano.”

“What about it?” She pushed her shoulders back and stared at him straight on.  If he wasn’t so pissed, he’d probably be impressed.

“Do you know how loud you were being?”  

She rolled her eyes, “It wasn’t that loud.  And if I don’t tune it now then it won’t sound any better when I actually play it.”

“Wait,” Rowan blinked, “that wasn’t you playing?”  Rowan wasn’t musically inclined.  He had a very small understanding of music or its objects.  he barely even knew what tuning meant, really.  And he definitely didn’t know it was a thing done to pianos.  Guitars, maybe … but pianos?

“No, I … “ she sighed and shook her head.  “Come on, it’ll be easier if I show you.” Turning heel, she walked into her apartment, leaving the door open for him.  Curiosity piqued, Rowan followed her in.  His found his neighbor in her living room–a mirror image of his own, besides the furnishings–standing next to an old baby grand piano.

“I just got it,” she explained, then softly pressed down on one of the keys.  “But it’s been stored away for a long time and no one’s been maintaining it.” She shrugged.  “I know it’s loud,” she said slowly and locked gazes with him.  He understood her, then.  He understood the small apology beneath them.  Rowan guessed that was as close to an actual apology as he was going to get. “But,” she continued, “I promise, once it’s in order it’ll be worth it.”

Rowan slowly stepped closer.  Growing up, he’d had a piano in his house, but it was merely decoration as no one in his family was musically inclined–or inclined to learn.  He’d never even touched the thing–never even thought about the type of noises–beautiful or otherwise–it could produce.

Cautiously, he reached out, then stopped just inches away from one of the white keys.  Looking up, he saw his neighbor watching him curiously.  “May I?”  he asked, not wanting to overstep.  She merely nodded and so he pressed down on the key.  The noise it made was deep, soulful, and Rowan wished in that moment that he knew how to play so he could hear more sounds like it.

“I’m almost done with it,” his neighbor said softly.  Rowan looked up to find her smiling at him.  “I can play something for you, once it’s tuned.  If you’d like.”

Rowan looked at her, then back down to the piano.  Normally he’d decline, but something in his chest stopped him.  He pressed down on the same key again and felt it reverberate within him.  Within his soul.  Smiling gently, he looked back up, “I’d like that.”

His neighbor’s eyes lit up–there was gold in them!–and she grinned broadly.  Taking a step closer to him, she stretched out her hand.  “I’m Aelin.”

Taking her warm hand in his, Rowan found her smile was becoming infectious as his own cheeks began to widen.  “Rowan.”  

Chapter Text

It wasn’t a date.

Rowan had to repeat that mantra over and over again in his head.  It wasn’t a date.  It wasn’t a date.  It was not a date.

It felt like a date.

When Rowan had left Aelin’s apartment yesterday, they’d made plans for the next night so Aelin could play her piano and show him what all the fuss was about.  Being the gentleman that he was, Rowan offered to bring over dinner–a home cooked meal, he’d said.  Aelin’s eyes had lit up then, the gold in her eyes shining brightly.  So although neither had asked the other on a date, or called it that, it definitely had the feel of one.  And Rowan couldn’t help but be excited by the idea of it.  From the little he’d gathered about her during their short conversation, the white haired male could tell Aelin was smart, more clever than most, and had a wicked humor that would make even Fenrys blush.  Although he didn’t know where this not-a-date-date would lead, he was very optimistic about its potential.  There was just one small problem.

Rowan couldn’t cook.

Not that he’d ever truly admit it, of course.  And he could whip up a few things–eggs, for example.  And bacon.  Breakfast food was what he was best at.  But for a not-a-date-date … Rowan didn’t think bacon and eggs would suffice.  So, several hours before their not-a-date-date was to start, he grabbed a random cook book and chose a recipe at random.  After a quick run to the grocery store, Rowan had all the ingredients he needed and went to work.

It was a simple meal: herb roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and some steamed vegetables. The preparation was completed without a hitch as Rowan had an iron clad stomach and thus took no issue with removing he giblets or loosening the chicken’s skin.  He was also very adept at handling a knife and had the potatoes and carrots peeled and cut up in no time.  Soon enough the potatoes were boiling in a pot on the stove top with the carrots, peas, and celery next to them, and the chicken baking in the oven. Everything was going perfectly.  So perfectly, Rowan had even begun to feel proud of his culinary accomplishments.  

He should have known better.

He didn’t understand.  One minute, everything was fine.  The next, everything was on fire.  Rowan coughed harshly and waved his hand in front of his face back and forth in an attempt to dispel the dark smoke in front of him after opening the oven door.  Quickly opening his kitchen windows, Rowan groaned as he reached in and pulled out a completely black chicken.  There was no redeeming it.  

Placing it to the side with a sigh, Rowan moved on to the potatoes and grimaced when he saw the water they were boiling in had turned a creamy-off yellow color.  Sticking a fork in them, Rowan huffed angrily as he realized they, too, were over done.  Turning the stove off, he tried to salvage them as best he could by adding in copious amounts of butter and milk.  They ended up tasting all right, but their texture was more soup like than anything.  The only thing that turned out as it was meant to were the vegetables.

Throwing his head back and groaning loudly, Rowan began to throw everything in the sink and down the drain.  He hoped Aelin would be all right with ordering take out.  The white haired man was so preoccupied with cleaning up, he barely heard the soft knocking at his door.  Frowning, he looked at the clock and swore before running to open it. 

“Aelin,” he greeted, feeling out of breath.  He tried to position his body to block her view of the kitchen and the sink, but that seemed to only make her curious as to what he was hiding.

“Hey,” she began, reaching up on her tip toes, trying to get a look over his shoulder.  Thankfully he was too tall for her to do that.  “I just thought I’d check in and see how you were doing–seeing as how you’re fifteen minutes late and all.”

Wincing, Rowan opened his mouth, planning on telling her some lie–his work ran late, his mother called, he fell asleep after working out–but closed it almost immediately.  He didn’t know Aelin all that well yet, but he had a feeling she was the type who always new when people were lying.  he also had a feeling that she wouldn’t take being lied to very well.  So with a defeated sigh, he stepped aside and motioned to his catastrophe of a sink.

“I know, I lost track of time trying to make us dinner.”  He walked over to his sink and placed another pot into it.  “As you can see,” he said dryly while rolling his eyes, “it didn’t go as planned.”

Aelin had followed him in and grimaced when she saw the chicken.  “None of it’s salvageable, huh?”

“Unfortunately no,” he didn’t bother mentioning the vegetables.  They were practically useless.  “How do you feel about take out?  There’s a great Chinese place just a block away.  It should be here in no time.”

“Hmm,” Aelin looked over the kitchen and then her eyes landed on the fridge.  “You sure?  What else do you have?”  She opened up the fridge and Rowan had to hold back another wince.  His fridge was terribly bare.  Just a few simple things like sandwich meat, eggs, bacon, butter, and milk.  He waited with a grim expression for her to laugh or to gasp or make some sort of disapproving sound, but she did nothing of the sort.  “Oh, hey!” She exclaimed, reaching in for something.  “You have bacon and eggs!” She pulled the items out of the fridge and turned around with a large, genuine smile.  “I’ve got pancake mix over at mine, too!  We’re set!”

“Really?”  He asked hesitantly, his brows furrowing together.  “You’re okay with breakfast for dinner?”

“Okay with it?”  Aelin’s brows mirrored his and she cocked her head to the side.  “Of course I’m okay with it!  Breakfast food is the only thing I’m able to cook.  I’m always down for breakfast for dinner.”

If Rowan were anyone else he was sure his jaw would’ve hit the ground by now.  Instead, he just blinked at her and accepted the food items as she handed them to him.  “Now come on,” Aelin ordered, looping her arm through his and leading them back over to her apartment.  “You cook, I’ll play, and then we’ll feast like kings!”

Aelin smiled up at him conspiratorially and he found, once again, his own lips stretching to match hers.  If this was a date, Rowan thought, then it was about the be the best damn date he’d ever had.    

Chapter Text

Rowan didn't know how he ended up in this mess. Well, he thought sulkily, standing in a corner of Aelin's apartment while staring out of one of her windows, that wasn't necessarily true. He knew exactly how he'd ended up in Aelin's apartment on a Saturday evening at one of her infamous parties. She'd invited him, after their not-a-date-date, and he'd said no.

He said no, dammit.

But then she fluttered her pretty eyelashes at him, dragged here fingers down his bicep in a way that made his skin burn in the wake of her touch, and said that she really wanted him to be there. He never stood a chance.

Now here he stood, amidst a crowd of buzzed strangers with annoying pop music blaring in his ears, and there was not enough beer in the entire country to make any of it seem bearable. He wasn't sure where Aelin had gotten to. The apartment wasn't even that big and yet he couldn't find hide nor hair of her anywhere. Taking another swig of his beer, he frowned when he realized the bottle was empty and so he made his way to the kitchen to claim another.

Once he stepped into the kitchen, Rowan realized immediately that he shouldn't have. The room was occupied by a young man-well, younger than him, but probably older than Aelin-with long blond hair and a young woman with long, dark brown hair. The two were standing very close together, seemingly just a moment or two away from embracing one another. Not wanting to interrupt, Rowan turned about face and tried to escape.

He never did have much luck.

"Hey!" the young man called after him. The white haired male would have ignored him, had he not immediately followed up with, "Rowan, right?"

Sighing, Rowan turned back around and nodded. Brows furrowing, the older man took in the younger's features and realized with a disturbing shock that he looked almost exactly like Aelin. They even had the same blue and gold eyes. Aelin didn't mention having a brother, but he had to be related to her one way or another.

Nodding in confirmation, Rowan decided to do the civilized thing and extend his hand. The young blond shook it, his grip firm and almost bone breaking-not that Rowan would ever let on-and introduced himself, "I'm Aedion, Aelin's cousin." He grinned, lupine like, and raked his eyes over Rowan's form, licking his bottom lip when his gazed flickered back up to Rowan's. "She's told me all about you."

Snorting, the dark haired woman from earlier, smacked Aedion on the chest, none too lightly, either, and forced the blond to release Rowan's hand. "Play nice, wolf boy, or Aelin will skin your hide."

Aedion huffed out a laugh, and if Rowan wondered whether his flirtation earlier was serious or in jest, the look in the young man's eyes as he stared down at the brown haired woman cleared that up for him promptly. "I'm Lysandra, by the way," she smiled at him, so sweetly it made Rowan's teeth ache, and extended her hand to him as well. They shook hands and then were left in a slightly awkward bout of silence.

"So Aelin finally dragged you to one of these things, huh?" Aedion asked, an all too knowing smirk and complimentary quirked eyebrow adorning his face.

Rowan shrugged, not wanting to admit how apt the word dragged was. "I figured it was about time I experienced one of her parties from this side of the door."

"Sure it was," Aedion said with a faux sympathetic nod of his head. "Be careful with her, Rowan," Aedion clapped him on his shoulder, and the white haired man thought he was about the receive the cliche don't hurt her, or else, speech. "She's a spit fire. Stand too close and you'll get burned." He gave Rowan a wink-and a final appreciative glance-before folding Lysandra's hand into his own and walking out of the kitchen.

Rowan stared after them, not really sure what to make of that final bit of advice, but decided to just shake it off and grab another beer from the fridge. He contemplated staying in the now empty kitchen for the rest of the party in hopes of avoiding anyone else, but decided that was cowardly. And Rowan wasn't a coward.

Walking back into the busy living room, he thought he caught a flash of Aelin disappearing around a corner, but was stopped by two young men before he could fully investigate. One was taller and broader than the other, though not as tall as himself, with brown hair cut short in military fashion. The other was softer looking, with dark, almost pitch black hair, and blue eyes that held an icy glint within their depths.

"Can I help you?" Rowan asked slowly, not sure what he was getting in to. They looked ready for a fight and although Rowan knew he could take them both without spilling a drop of his beer, he always liked to know why he was getting into a fight first.

"Dorian, ask him," the taller one nudged the shorter in the ribs with his elbow.

"What?" No!" He hissed. "We have to build up to it. Do you know how rude it would be if I just-"

"Just ask me," Rowan said dryly, trying not to roll his eyes at their shenanigans. He was more mature than that-or so he told himself.

"Well, see," Dorian began, ever so diplomatically, "my friend Chaol here has a relative in-" this time Rowan really did roll his eyes. It seemed Dorian wouldn't be cutting straight to the point then.

Luckily for Dorian, Chaol seemed to notice Rowan's lack of patience and cut him off, "-are you related to Manon Blackbeak?"

Raising an eyebrow, he couldn't help but ask, "Who?"

Chaol pointed, none too discreetly, over at a tall, white haired woman standing in the corner of the room. She was surrounded by two other women, a scantily clad blonde and a shorter, dark haired woman with a prosthetic limb where the lower half of her right leg should have been. The white haired woman looked up, noticing Chaol's pointing, and her lip curled back in an aggressive sneer.

Rowan had to admit, he could see why they'd think he and this Manon were related, due to their hair coloring, but he quickly shook his head, "No, were not related. At all."

Dorian pouted, seemingly put out, "Damn," he muttered, but then gave Rowan a sly grin, "I was hoping you could introduce us."

"Isn't she friends with Aelin?" Rowan asked, scanning the room again to see if said woman was in sight. She wasn't. "Can't she introduce you two?"

"She could," Dorian said slowly, reluctantly. Rowan knew there was more behind that tone, but didn't care to press. "But she's more frenemies with Manon than actual friends, if you know what I mean."

"Then why's she here at all?"

"Aelin's childhood friends with Elide, so she always gets an invite," Chaol explained with a shrug, "Elide is friends with Manon. And Manon always tags along when Elide decides to come. And Astrid." He added, almost as an afterthought.

Taking a slow, deep breath, Rowan had to force himself to remain calm and not pull at his hair. Why he was even still talking to these two numb skulls was a mystery to him. "So why don't you ask Elide to introduce you?"

"I've tried!" Dorian wailed dramatically. "She's so shy though, I can barely get out a 'hey, can you,' before she's scurrying out of the room! I'm running out of ideas!"

Rowan blinked down at the boy. "Why don't you just go up and talk to her?"

Chaol and Dorian blinked. Twice. Thrice. "You know," Chaol said slowly, "he's got a point."

Stroking his chin with his thumb, Dorian hummed as he mulled over the advice. Snapping his fingers, he nodded, "Right. Right, well, I guess there's nothing to lose. Wish me luck." He turned to Chaol, breathed out of his nose harshly, then walked up to Manon as a man walked onto a battlefield.

Rowan frowned and shook his head at the ridiculousness that just occurred. Taking a sip of his beer, he looked down at Chaol who took the signal and walked away and over to a dark skinned woman with a roguish smile and the toned arms any trainer would dream of. Scanning the room again for Aelin, Rowan found himself almost face to face with a different dark skinned woman than the one he saw with Chaol. The woman in front of him was tall, thin as a spear, and had long, dark braids that reached down to her waist.

She smiled kindly at him and nodded, "Hello, I'm Nehemia. You must be Rowan." The white haired man frowned, wondering how so many people automatically knew his name, but nodded in confirmation all the same. Nehemia's smile grew, her happiness radiating off her in waves and illuminating her beauty. Rowan vaguely wondered how Aelin had collected such an attractive group of friends. "Aelin's told me much about you. She really enjoyed your breakfast for dinner date."

Rowan's eyebrows rose infinitesimally. So it was a date. That was good to know. "How do you know Aelin?" He asked after a momentarily lapse of silence. Small talk never was his strong suit.

"We were roommates in college. I was a transfer student, actually." This time her words had a soft lilt to them. The smallest sign of an accent.

"From Eyllwe?" He guessed, and Nehemia nodded, her eyes lighting up with excitement. Rowan gave her a small, almost shy smile. "I thought I detected an accent."

"Very good ear! I've worked hard to mask it, but I guess I can't fool everyone. Have you ever been?"

"Just a couple of times-for work. Unfortunately I didn't have much time to really enjoy it."

"That is unfortunate," Nehemia agreed solemnly. "Perhaps next time you go it will be more for pleasure than business and you'll be able to enjoy yourself. Let me know if you ever have the chance. I can give you all the ins and outs of all the best restaurants and attractions. None of that awful nonsense they recommend on Yelp."

Grinning, Rowan nodded his head in thanks, "If I ever go back, you'll be the first person I call."

Nehemia preened, apparently very pleased with his answer, before waving at someone behind him. "Aelin!" she called out, and just like that, the ever elusive smoke that was Aelin appeared at his side. Aelin bumped her shoulder against his in silent greeting while giving her attention to her friend. "Where is Fleetfoot? I was looking forward to seeing her."

"She had to get her shots so she's at the Faliq farm for the week. You should have seen her, Nehemia! She loves it up there." Grinning proudly, she added, "She's even caught a few wild rabbits, too."

Shaking her head, Nehemia chuckled softly, "I can only imagine the hell she's raising on the farm."

"I promise, though, next time you're over she'll be here."

"Good," Nehemia nodded regally before shaking her empty class around, frowning at the left over ice. "Well this needs refreshing," she gave Aelin a meaningful look before looking up to Rowan. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Rowan."

Rowan nodded in response and watched as she effortlessly made her way through the crowd and towards the kitchen. "So," Aelin drawled out the word while taking a half step closer to him. "You andNehemia seemed to be getting along well."

Shrugging, Rowan smirked when he began to feel Aelin's body heat against his chest. "Yeah, she almost made it-" he cut himself off, realizing he was about to say something terribly rude and possibly offensive.

"Bearable?" Aelin finished with a wicked grin. When Rowan grinned back sheepishly, she laughed. "I'm impressed you lasted so long, honestly. I expected you to be gone hours ago." She tentatively reached out and hooked two fingers around two of his own. When his fingers squeezed around hers she smiled softly. "I guess that means you really like me, huh?"

Gulping, Rowan could barely nod. His gaze kept flashing between her eyes-so blue and so brilliant with that ring of gold-and down to her mouth. Eventually he found the skills needed to speak, "It wasn't so bad," he said hoarsely, referring to the party.

"Yeah?" She tilted her head to the side. "Well I think we can do better than that."

Before Rowan's brain could untangle itself enough to understand her words, Aelin reached up on her tip toes and kissed him. Rowan exhaled sharply, all breath leaving him. Her mouth was hot on his and when he felt her tongue reach out and lick at his upper lip, he all but melted on the spot.

He wanted to deepen the kiss-God, did he ever-but just as he tilted his head and opened his mouth to grant her access, right before he could fully bring his arms around her, a sharp, howling whistle cut through their bubble of bliss. Aelin pulled away to glare at her cousin and flipped him the bird. Aedion merely laughed and returned the favor. "Get a room!" He jeered.

Sticking her tongue out at him, Aelin rolled her eyes and returned her gaze to Rowan. Her face lost some of its tension when she met his green eyes. "How about now?" She asked, her eyes alight with mischief.

It took a few moments for Rowan to process what she said, and then another few moments to understand the context. When he did he grinned down at her, "Better," he said, leaning down to kiss her again, lightly this time so as to not attract any unwanted attention. "Much better."

"Good," Aelin said while intertwining their fingers. Tugging at his hand lightly, she nodded towards a hallway away from the party. Rowan raised a questioning eyebrow. "So," Aelin drawled, slowly leading him through the people and towards the hallway. "About that room . . ." She trailed off, biting down on her lower lip.

Eyes blazing, Rowan tightened his grip on her hand and answered thickly, "Lead the way."

Chapter Text

Rowan walked slowly down the hallway to his apartment, trying--and coming close to failing--to hold onto his grocery bags long enough until he could put them down on his kitchen counter.  The white haired man was a strong believer in making only one trips and while he was technically strong enough to carry his two hundred pounds worth of groceries, the bags holding those groceries were not.  They were stretching with the weight and soon enough the plastic handles would snap and Rowan would be left in the middle of the hallway surrounded by piles of food.  He was just two doors down, though, he’d make it.  It’d be close, but he’d make it.

Then the door to apartment 2B opened.

“Oh, hey Rowan,”Chaol greeted casually as he stepped out of Aelin’s apartment.  Aelin herself was just behind him and smiled brightly at Rowan.  Chaol looked between the two of them briefly, a slight frown on his face, then shrugged and said, “Well, I’ll see you guys later.”

Rowan quirked an eyebrow at Aelin and watched as she leaned against her open door frame.  “That was . . . odd.”  He hadn’t interacted much with Chaol before--only at Aelin’s party last week, really--but every time he saw the man, Chaol looked vaguely upset.  Or slightly constipated.  Rowan wondered what his deal was.

Aelin just rolled her eyes and lazily stuck her tongue out.  “Yeah, he’s in a mood.  He wants to give Nesryn the spare key to his apartment--you know, next step in their relationship--but can’t find it.  He thought it might be here, but no such luck.”

Tilting his head to the side, and shifting the weight of the bags in his hands, Rowan asked, “Why would you have a key to his apartment?”

Aelin shrugged, and startled a bit when Fleetfoot appeared behind her and pressed her cold nose to the back of her master’s bare leg.  Reaching down to pet the dog, she said, “’Cause he gave me one back when we dated.”

“When you what?”  Rowan’s white eyebrows shot up, practically reaching up to his hair line.  His hands tightened around the plastic bags, his grip turning hot and sweaty with tension. He wasn’t sure why he was shocked to hear this.  I mean, it wasn’t something he’d have guessed out of the blue, but for some reason he just couldn’t imagine Aelin and Choal . . . being sweet on each other.  They just didn’t fit.  He internally admitted to himself that he could be biased on the subject, but . . .

“We dated.”  Aelin repeated, trying to suppress an amused smile.  “Back in college.  It didn’t last very long, in case you’re wondering,” she huffed out a laugh and her smile grew as she watched a blush bloom over his tan cheeks.  “But when we did, he gave me a key to the apartment.”

Rowan cleared his throat, ensuring his voice wouldn’t break with embarrassment when he asked, “And he thought you still had it?”

Aelin looked down at Fleetfoot and tenderly stroked the dog’s ears, “I told him I didn’t, but he’s so stubborn,” she rolled her eyes, “and just had to check for himself.”

“Why were you so sure you didn’t have it?”  Rowan knew he himself had a few items from his ex’s, and knew he’d left things with them, too.  He wasn’t even sure what he’d left or what he currently had in his possession.  Aelin seemed one hundred percent sure that she didn’t have they key, though, which piqued his curiosity.

“Because I distinctly remember chucking it at his head while we were breaking up,” she shrugged unapologetically.  

“While you were breaking up?  That’s an interesting way to phrase it.”

“Yeah, well, the break up kind of lasted a week.”  Shaking her head, Aelin’s blue eyes drifted to the left as she reminisced.  “It was pretty rough, actually.”  Smirking, she brought her blue eyed gaze back to Rowan’s green.  A spark of mischief had found its way there, making the gold circle in them shimmer almost magically.  Rowan knew he shouldn’t like that gleam, that it should be setting off warning bells in his head, but instead he found himself leaning closer to her, like a sailor caught in a siren’s song.  “Ending things with Dorian was much easier.”

Dorian?”  If there was anyone in the world who Rowan thought was more ill suited for Aelin than Chaol, it was Dorian.  Dorian was all glimmering glass--beautiful, but cold and delicate.  Aelin was a blast of fiery punch--leaving you burning for more. “When did you--?”

Aelin laughed, waving her hand and brushing away his question, “It was nothing serious.  Just a fling--honestly, I think we were just bored and found each other attractive.”  She stepped closer, her smile turning less teasing and more gentle.  “But you know what I never felt with either of them?”  She brought her hand up to brush some of Rowan’s hair away from his face.  He shook his head, not trusting himself to speak coherently when she was so close.  “I never felt that spark, that rush, that feeling in the pit of your stomach that makes you realize that you’re alive.  I never felt that,” she brushed her finger against his cheek bone, “until I met you.”

Rowan couldn’t help himself, he leaned in and took her mouth with his, relishing the moan that escaped her mouth and sent small tremors through his body. He’d never be able to put into words how she made him feel, but that word--alive--that resonated with him.  Aelin made him feel alive.

Rowan would have been content to continue standing there, in the middle of the hall, kissing Aelin until the world ended--and from the way she was kissing him back, teasing his bottom lip with her teeth, he knew she felt the same--but, unfortunately, Fleetfoot did not.  The large dog began to whine incessantly, and when that did not immediately get her master’s attention, she barked and yelped until finally Aelin pulled away, “Okay, okay!”  She huffed before running into her apartment and then back out with a red leash in hand.  Clipping the leash to Fleetfoot’s collar, Aelin gave Rowan a sheepish grin, “Raincheck?”  She asked.

Rowan breathed heavily and stared down at Aelin with a heavy gaze.  He nodded slowly, “Yeah--raincheck.”  Blinking several times, Rowan tried again, “After her walk--knock on my door?”  It was very eloquent, but Rowan was proud of himself for managing to get even those few words out.

“Will do!”  Aelin promised, leaning in to kiss his cheek, before letting Fleetfoot drag her down the hall and out of the apartment building.  Rowan watched them go, watched them until he could no longer see either dog or master down the long hallway.  The white haired man was so preoccupied watching after Aelin he didn’t register the pull in his plastic bags until it was too late. 

The bags gave and Rowan’s groceries cascaded to the floor.

Chapter Text

Rowan sighed, utterly content with his life. He'd just gotten a raise at work, his apartment was finally clean after what felt like weeks of procrastination, and his date with Aelin was going fabulously. It was late, and they'd gone out for dinner earlier to celebrate Rowan's raise, and now sat on his couch watching a movie. Aelin was tucked beneath his arm, she snugged up against his side and warmed him in the most pleasant of ways. Her head was within easy kissing distance of his lips, which he took advantage of every few minutes. He'd sneak a kiss to the crown of her head after she laughed, or commented on the movie and would take in a deep breath, relishing in her aroma of jasmine and lavender. He could've stayed that way forever, with Aelin huddled up close, a blanket covering the both of them, and a fan favorite movie playing on the screen before them. Rowan felt like he'd found paradise.

And then the knocking began.

At first, it was just a single knock on his door, and the two love birds ignored it easily enough, thinking it was just a passing neighbor bumping into the door. Then, after just a brief thirty seconds--just long enough for Rowan to assume he was safe from the outside world--the knocking began again. It came harder this time, more purposeful. Three hard, loud knocks, then a slight pause before another round of three knocks were heard against his door. "Rowan!" A familiar, if not slightly muffled voice called from the hallway. "Rowan, we know you're in there your anti-social fuck-let us in!"

Rowan winced and Aelin snorted, tilting her head back to look at him, "Friends of yours?"

"You could say that," he replied evasively. Pulling his arm back from around Aelin's shoulder's Rowan mentally prepared himself to shoo away his friends so he could continue his date. Before he could even stand up, though, he heard the soft click of his lock turning over and with a sinking dread, Rowan remembered he'd given Gavriel a spare key. "Shit," he hissed, but it was too late. The door had opened.

The first through the threshold was Fenrys, the owner of the voice that spoke through the door earlier. His long, golden hair was pulled back in a bun and his brown skin seemed to shimmer in the dull apartment lighting, telling Rowan he'd been out at some club earlier that night. Right behind him was his twin brother, Connall, who was his mirror in looks, but his opposite in personality. Where Fenrys was all boisterous snark and charisma, Connall was soft spoken cleverness and intelligence. Vaughan was right behind them, all height and gangly limbs, with short dark hair and the nose of a blood hound-he made his way straight to the kitchen to find Rowan and Aelin's leftovers. Last through the door was Gavriel, his golden blond hair catching the light just enough to make it look as if his hair was gilded. He was Rowan's oldest and closest friend, and the first to realize they'd just interrupted something intimate.

"Ooh, dessert!" Vaughan's voice cheered from the kitchen as well as the sound of tin foil being torn. Rowan sighed and rolled his eyes. Aelin hadn't said anything yet, but sat propped up on her knees watching the men strut about the apartment with amusement. She bit down on her bottom lip to keep the giggles from leaking out.

"Whatchya watching?" Fenrys slid onto the couch's arm and grabbed the remote from the coffee table before him. He didn't even cast a glance towards Rowan as he did so, which was why he still hadn't realized Rowan had company. Connall, on the other hand, had. But he merely observed from the other side of the couch, his head tilted in a way that was all too lupine. "Why're you watching a RomCom?" Fenrys grimaced and immediately changed the channel.

"Ah, Rowan," Gavriel spoke slowly, carefully. As one would to a wild animal. "Are we . . . interrupting something?"

Fenrys snorted, "What could we be--"

"Fenrys," Connall easily grabbed his twin's attention and nodded his head towards Aelin.

"Hey, what's up with all the good foo-holy shit are you on a date?" Vaughan stopped dead in his tracks as he returned from the kitchen and caught sight of Aelin next to Rowan on the couch.

"A what?" Fenrys yipped, abruptly standing from his seat on the couch's arm and staring down at Aelin as if she'd just materialized. Brow furrowing, Fenrys hummed and stepped in front of the only woman in the room and poked her shoulder. "Well I'll be damned, she's real!"

"No shit," Aelin rolled her eyes, but the corners of her mouth twitched in barely contained amusement. She didn't hate them, which Rowan supposed was a good thing.

Breathing through his nose, Rowan asked through a clenched jaw, "Was there a reason you all came here? Uninvited?"

"There was, actually," Gavriel said, attempting to diffuse the situation. "Lorcan's coming into town tonight." Rowan's head snapped to attention, his green eyes seeking out Gavriel's tawny ones. Aelin's eyes flickered to him, noticing the change but not saying anything. "His flight lands in a few hours. We thought we'd go and pick him up. Obviously we had no idea that you were on a date."

"K-I-S-S-I-N-G," Fenrys sang, his voice off key but he didn't care. Connall rolled his eyes at his brother, but didn't even try to reprimand him for his childish behavior. So long as Rowan didn't rise to his bait, Connall found no need to get involved.

Aelin's brows raised, but a puff of laughter escaped her lips. "That was the idea." Then, turning to Rowan, she asked, "Who's Lorcan?"

"Just another one of my friends," he answered simply. Aelin hummed and quirked a brow, not quite believing him. They stared at each other for a few moments, quietly having a conversation with only their eyebrows.

"More like our fearless leader," Vaughan elaborated from his place behind them, pulling Aelin's attention away from Rowan. "We haven't seen him in years," under his breath, he added, "thanks to Maeve."

Thankfully Aelin didn't ask who Maeve was as Rowan really didn't want to open that can of worms so early in their relationship. "That'll be fun," she said, turning to face Rowan. Her eyes were so bright and blue and earnest and dammit he wanted to kiss her senseless just then. "How long will you all be in town together?"

"About a week, maybe more," Gavriel answered easily. Looking at his watch, he added, "We should get going if we want to make it to the airport on time. Rowan, I'll call you later-we'll get together tomorrow?"

"What?" Fenrys and Aelin asked simultaneously, though Fenrys's tone was a tad whinier. "You're not going?" They asked, staring at Rowan. Their synchronized questioning was rather disturbing and caught the white haired male so off guard he couldn't answer quickly enough.

Gavriel blinked, then his gaze darted between Aelin and Rowan several times before he swooped in to the rescue. "I, well, I assumed Rowan would want to finish his date with you, ah--" Gavriel caught himself and blushed, realized he hadn't introduced himself and hadn't gotten Aelin's name. "I'm sorry," he reached out his hand for her to take. "I'm Gavriel."

"Aelin," She nodded and shook his hand.

"Fenrys," the blond male on Aelin's other side waved, "And that's Connall." Connall nodded his head in greeting. "And the glutton eating your food is Vaughan," Fenrys added dryly, watching the dark haired male continue eating food straight from the tin foil packaging. Vaughan merely shrugged and grunted. Rowan sighed and leaned his head back against the couch.

"It's nice to meet you, Aelin," Gavriel said, bringing the attention back to the matter at hand and away from the distraction that was Fenrys. "But, as I was saying, we didn't realize Rowan was on a date, so we'll just meet up with him tomorrow and-"

"What? No! We were almost finished with the movie, anyway. Right Rowan?" She looked at him and he slowly nodded. "Don't reschedule on my account." Softly, just for Rowan-although the others could probably hear her good and well-she added, "Go see your friend." You miss him, I can tell, her eyes said. I'll be here when you get back.

He nodded. Thank you, his eyes responded. I owe you one for this, he smirked.

Quirking a brow, she grinned in return, I know, her skin around her eyes crinkled with mirth, and I intend to collect. "You're here a week, right?" She asked Gaviel. He nodded slowly, his expression one of confusion after having just watched their silent conversation. "Have any plans on Saturday?"

Rowan knew where this was going. He knew where it was going and he had to stop it. To nip it in the bud before--" No," Gavriel answered honestly, not aware of the danger.

"Great!" Aelin clapped her hands once, "I'm having a few friends over to my apartment that way. You should all come!"

"Party?" Fenrys asked, and Aelin nodded. "Hell yeah, we're coming!"

"Thank you, Aelin, that's very kind of you," Gavriel officially accepted the invitation, not noticing or just ignoring Rowan's twitching eye and faint grimace. Attending Aelin's parties were one thing, but attending her party with his cadre? The white haired male barely suppressed a groan. He didn't know it he'd survive the experience. Add Lorcan into the mix? Rowan shuddered.

He was in for a long week.

 

Chapter Text

Rowan really should have thought this through more.  He should’ve been faster, more clever, more distracting, more . . . something. He hadn’t been, however, and now he was paying for it.  Frowning he reached up and adjusted the bunny ears Aelin had placed on his head.  They were tight behind his ears and made his look ridiculous.  He’d agreed to the bunny ears last weekend, when he thought Aelin’s little shin-dig would just be attended by the regulars---Dorian, Elide, Nehemia, Chaol, Aedion.  He didn’t mind wearing the ears around them.  Knowing Aelin, she’d roped them all into something similarly embarrassing, and Rowan could deal with them all looking ridiculous together.

It wouldn’t just be the regulars visiting them this weekend, though.  No, his stupid group of friends---fondly referred to as his cadre by Aelin---would be attending this week’s party.  That fact alone would also normally not be an issue, just like Rowan wearing bunny ears normally wouldn’t be an issue, but the two events happening simultaneously?  Gods help him, he’d never live it down.  Especially if Lorcan also decided to show.  Groaning, Rowan let his head fall back against the wall with a soft thud.  It just had to be Easter weekend, he cursed silently.  Why hadn’t he thought this through better?  

Aelin came around the corner, drying her damp hair with a towel.  Seeing him with his bunny ears in place, she smiled brightly, “Hey, cutie,” she winked.  A balloon of warmth inflated within his chest and the white haired male found himself returning her smile, his earlier anxieties and worry lifting off his shoulders with ease.  Aelin stepped closer to him, pressing their chests together, and reached up to adjust his fake ears.  Humming, Aelin’s tongue poked out from between her lips in thought.  Her hand slid down until it was cupping Rowan’s cheek, her thumb tenderly stroking the curve of his cheek bone.  “You okay?”  She asked, her blue and gold eyes searching his green ones for the truth.  “You looked a little . . . frustrated just now.”

Leaning forward and pressing their foreheads together, Rowan nodded.  “I’m fine,” he said, tilting his head to press a kiss on the inside of her palm.  “Just overthinking is all.”

“About your friends?”  She tilted her head but not pulling away.  Her eyes flickered up, “You don’t have to wear them, you know.  I don’t mind.”

Shrugging, Rowan assured her, “No, I want to wear them.  They’re fun.”  He grinned and leaned in to steal a quick kiss.  Wrapping an arm around her waist, Rowan pulled Aelin closer, so close he could feel her accelerated heart beat pulsating in her chest.  Craning his neck to place a soft kiss against her brow, Rowan slowly kissed his way down the side of her face until he reached the the curve of her jaw and nipped at the skin there with his canines.  “You’re fun,” he whispered against the skin behind her ear, relishing the goosebumps that rose in response.  

He bit down on her lobe, sucking it into his mouth and teasing with with his teeth and tongue.  Aelin giggled and pulled away, playfully slapping his chest.  “Hey now, buzzard, we’ve got a party to host so none of that.”  Rowan,  still leaning against the wall, quirked a brow and smirked just enough to make her huff.  “None of that,” she repeated, but then grinned as well, “for now.”  

A series of three knocks echoed throughout Aelin’s apartment, turning both their heads towards the door.  “Oh, shoot,” Aelin looked down at her rumpled t-shirt and basketball shorts.  “That’s probably Chaol---early as always.  Can you let him in?  I need to finish getting ready.”

Shrugging again, Rowan said, “Sure,” and pushed off the wall to answer the door.  Aelin leaned in to peck him on his cheek before hurrying back to her room.  Sliding the chain lock open, Rowan opened the door.  Chaol stood on the other side, his arms full of paper grocery bags overflowing with Easter related candies and decorations.  Atop his head was a set of bunny ears that matched the ones on Rowan’s, and from the frowning, disgruntled look on his face, Rowan could tell he was enjoying them just as much as he.  “Need help?”  He asked, grabbing two bags after the other man grunted in affirmation.

After the bags were safely placed atop the kitchen island, Chaol sighed and said, “Thanks.  I was worried the bags would rip before I got here,” his mouth twitched up into an awkward smile.  Rowan blinked in response.  He didn’t dislike the brown haired man, but he didn’t like him, either.  They hadn’t had much time to get to know each other, and the only thing Rowan truly knew about him was that he and Aelin used to date.  Turning his gaze away before Chaol caught him glaring, rowan  began sorting through the items in the bags.

“What is all this?”  he asked, picking up a bag filled with shredded, shiny green plastic.  He riffled through the bag some more and found a box filled with yellow puffy chickens.  “Do we eat this?”

“Peeps?”  Chaol asked, gesturing to the chickens, “I mean, you can, but people usually just look at them.  They’re made of marshmallow and kind of gross.”  Cocking his head to the side, he asked, “Haven’t you ever celebrated Easter before?”

“In Doranelle if you celebrated Easter you just said a few prayers and made a ham,” Rowan told him, opening the box of Peeps to sniff one.  Nose twitching disdainfully, he placed the strange food item back in the box.

“Oh yeah,” Chaol shook his head, as if remembering something.  “I forget you’re not from Erilea.”  He began pulling out more things from the bags---plastic eggs, food dyes, a large bag of M&M’s, “When did you move to Adarlan?”

Rowan squished the bag filled with the shiny green plastic curiously, “About six years ago.”

“Huh,” Chaol’s golden brown eyes flickered up briefly, “I would’ve guessed longer.  I can barely hear your accent.”

“I learned to hide it,” Rowan answered tersely.  He thought back to when he first came to Erilea.  He’d just been offered a job in Rifthold---which had been a godsend after his terrible experience with Nightingale and Company---and found its people snobbish, close minded, and intolerant of anything different.  Anything other.  And Rowan, fresh off the boat, had been just that.  He was also a highly adaptable creature, however, and quickly learned to curb his natural accent.  

“You’re really good at it,”  Chaol nodded, not noticing or caring about the tension seeping off the taller man.  “It took Aelin years to get rid of hers.  Or so she told me,” he opened a bag of M&M’s and rummaged Aelin’s cabinets until he found a dish to pout them into.  “Knowing her, though, it probably just felt like years.”  He rolled his eyes, “when in reality it was just a few days.”

“Aelin has an accent?”  Rowan asked, his brows shooting up.  He never knew that.  Then again, she probably didn’t know he had one, either.

“Yeah, she’s originally from Terrassen.  Her and Aedion.”

Thinking back on it, Rowan did recall Aedion having an accent, but he hadn’t paid too much mind to it at the time.  He’d been too overwhelmed at the time.  “Why’d she get rid of it?”  He should really be asking Aelin this, and he would, but Chaol was right there and much more convenient at the moment.  Rowan realized immediately it was the wrong thing to ask, though, when Chaol’s shoulders hunched up, almost up to his ears, and his lips pursued.  A knock banged against the door.

“I’ll get it!”  Chaol said loudly and abruptly left the kitchen, leaving Rowan to frown after him.

A light, airy laugh sounded from the living room and Rowan took a deep breath before stepping out of the sanctuary of the kitchen.  He could think about Aelin’s accent later.  It was time to be social.  

Slowly Aelin’s friends began to trickle through her door and eventually the hosts just decided to leave the door open instead of having to open it every few moments.  First came Lysandra and Aedion, followed closely by a young, scarred girl named Evangeline who quickly sought out Fleetfoot.  Next was Dorian, Nesryn, and Nehemia, all carrying some form of food and drink.  Then came Manon, Elide, and Asterin---Elide was the only one of her group to wear the bunny ears.  There were a few others that Rowan knew, but had never held a conversation with.  There was a pretty, dark haired girl named Kaltain who always seemed to have her nose in the air. Dorian’s cousin Roland, who was a relentless flirt.  A red head named Ansel who had a bark for a laugh.  Then there was the terrifyingly silent boy named Ilias and his band of followers.

The party was in full swing by the time Rowan’s cadre arrived, people were decorating Easter eggs to later hide in the court yard, decorating their own Easter baskets to collect the eggs with, and gorging themselves on all the candy Chaol brought over.  “There you are, you bastard!”  Fenrys’s voice carried over the music pulsating through the apartment and into Rowan’s ear canals.  Sighing, he put down his paint brush, handed Aelin the egg he’d been decorating, and turned around to see his gaggle of friends standing in the doorway.  “Happy Easter!”  The blond yelled, to which the rest of the party answered with hoots and hollers.  each and every single one of them---Lorcan included---wore a set of bunny ears. 

Jaw dropping, Rowan walked over to them and he couldn’t help it, he flicked one of Lorcan’s fake ears.  Snarling, the dark haired man smacked the other man’s hand away, “Don’t push it, Whitethorn.”

“Yeah, man,” Connall warned, his eyes wide, “we were lucky enough to get them on him.”

“Not to mention getting him to wear them in public,” Vaughan said distractedly, eyeing the buffet of sweets and snacks over Rowan’s shoulder.  “’Scuse me,” he mumbled before bee lining to the food.

“Why do you think we were so late?”  Fenrys asked, a insanely gleeful gleam in his eyes.  

“Where’s Aelin?”  Gavriel asked, his tawny eyes searching the room for her.

Rowan was about to tell him where, when Fenrys gasped and pointed in the opposite direction, “Whoa, Gavriel, look!  That guy looks just like you!”  Rowan turned to see who he was pointing to.  Aedion stood not too far away, entertaining both Evangeline and Fleetfoot with what looked like a magic trick.  Begrudgingly, Rowan had to admit Fenrys was right.  Gavriel and Aedion did look eerily similar.  “You could be his father!” Fenrys exclaimed.

Snorting and elbowing the other blond in the ribs, Gavriel shook his head, “Yeah, right.  So,” he said, returning his attention to Rowan, “Aelin?”

“Right here,” Aelin chirped, appearing from no where, Manon and Elide at her side.  She smiled up at Gavriel before her eyes flickered to Lorcan.  “Ah, you must be Lorcan!” She extended her hand to him, “I’ve heard so much about you!” Lorcan, however, wasn’t looking at Aelin.  His eyes were trained on the dark haired girl beside her.  Noticing his distraction, Aelin raised a brow.  Rowan held back held back a groan as he saw the gears turning behind her eyes and a mischievous grin pulled at her lips.  Wrapping her arm around elide’s shoulders, she gently pushed the girl forward.  “Elide, this is Lorcan Salvaterre.  Lorcan, this is Elide.”  Lorcan’s gaze was burning with intensity as he inclined his head by way of greeting.  Elide’s cheeks flushed and she smiled shyly in return.  “Elide, why don’t you show Lorcan around?  Maybe help him with an Easter basket?”

Manon took a step forward, a growl about to erupt from her chest and snarl forming on her lips.  She was stopped in her tracks, though, as Aelin threw her hand up to block her intervention.  “Ah, sure,” Elide’s voice was small and soft, but steady and sure.  Her smile grew, and the blush remained.  Not breaking eye contact, she offered, “Want to decorate an egg?”

Lorcan’s brows twitched and Rowan watched in silent awe as the man overcame his pride---something the white haired man never thought he’d witness---and agreed to participate in a child’s craft.  Elide hesitantly reached for his hand, and when Lorcan grasped her fingers firmly with his own, her eyes lit up and she happily led him through the throngs of people to the craft table.  

“Well I’ll be damned,” Fenrys whistled lowly.

“I never thought I’d see that day . . .” Connall whispered, breathlessly.

Gavriel hummed in agreement, “He’s never looked at anyway like that,” he added, “not even Maeve.”

“He shouldn’t be looking at her at all,” Manon hissed, breaking the remaining cadre from their trance.

“She’s not a child, Manon,” Aelin advised softly.  “Besides,” she joked, “what’s the worst that could happen?”

“Let’s hope we never find out,” the white haired woman said darkly before skulking away towards Asterin, who was standing in a corner, stroking Roland’s bicep.  

Shaking her head and laughing quietly, Aelin apologized, “Sorry about that---she’s a little protective.”

“No worries,” Gavriel said, and easy smile on his face.  “Now, did I hear something about egg decorating?”  His eyes twinkled with curiosity and interest, and with a hearty laugh Aelin nodded and ushered the remaining cadre further into her home and towards crafts.  Rowan watched them go, hanging back for a few moments as he digested everything that had just happened.  He knew Aelin was a genius---a mastermind, even---when it came to social events, but this was something else.  He looked around the room, watching as Aelin’s plan---a plan that couldn’t have taken more than three minutes to create---fell into place like a long, curling row of dominoes.

Lorcan---Lorcan Salvaterre, the prickliest, most frustrating and prideful man Rowan ever had the displeasure of meeting, had been nullified before his biting humor or crude remarks had a chance to rear their ugly heads just by a pretty, blushing girl asking him to paint eggs together.  She thwarted Manon from interrupting by quickly speaking the truth, that Elide was not a child, which sent her retreating to her only other true friend at the party; Asterin, who was currently pouring on the charm and flirting up a storm with Dorian’s cousin, making Manon the third wheel.  Dorian, having a crush on Manon, saw this predicament, and, with his cousin as his in, he---finally--found the courage to approach the white haired woman and strike up a conversation on the pretense of checking in with his cousin.  

Rowan realized his jaw was still hanging open and he quickly snapped it closed.  Finding Aelin’s eye in the crowd, she smiled and wink at him.  He shook his head.  Aelin wasn’t a genius---she was a freaking goddess.         

            

Chapter Text

Lorcan Salvaterre glared at the small egg held between his thumb and pointer finger. He’d never hated something so small in his entire life. He thought Easter egg painting was supposed to be easy. Something children did for fun. So why the hell was he having such a hard time with it? A light, twinkling laugh broke his concentration and his hand twitched, causing his paint brush to smear across the egg shell. Brow twitching, Lorcan looked to his right and into the dark eyes of Elide Lochan. The siren that lured him into this egg decorating trap. 

“What’s so funny?” He asked her.

“Your face,” she said plainly. Lorcan blinked, surprise slackening his tightened jaw. Whatever response he was expecting, it wasn’t that. “You look like you’re in a battle to the death with that egg.” She laughed again and the sound of it made the muscles in Lorcan’s shoulders relax.  It was so genuine, so care free. And even though she was laughing at him, he didn’t feel as if she was laughing at him. “Have you ever done this before?”

Shrugging, he told her, “Not really. Easter isn’t a big holiday in Doranelle.” That, and it wasn’t like he was raised in a home that would have indulged in such a frivolous craft, but Elide didn’t need to know that. He returned his focus to the egg and frowned. 

Elide reached over and placed her small hand over his, “you’re taking it too seriously,” she explained softly. With her other hand she grabbed a few cups full of dye and placed them in front of him. “Now,” she twisted to look at him with her large doe eyes. “What’s your favorite color?”

Quirking a brow, Lorcan asked, “What?”

“What’s your favorite color?”  She asked again, waiting patiently for his answer.

Shrugging, he said, “Black.”  Elide rolled her eyes and snorted.  “What?”  He asked, the threat of a smile pulling at his lips.  He never knew what to expect with this girl.  At first, he’d been stunned by her eyes—so warm and inviting—then drawn in by her shy, tentative smile and inviting offer, but he was enraptured by her spirit.  Her essence. She was quiet, but if you paid her enough attention—which he was proud to say he did—and listened enough, Elide’s sharp wit and blunt tongue would emerge and show itself.  She wasn’t some timid doe that needed protecting.  No, Lorcan was quickly learning that Elide was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“Black is not a color.  Name another color,”  Her tone left no room for argument so with a good natured shake of his head, Lorcan looked at the possible choices before him.

“Blue, I guess,” he decided.  The dye in the cup looked almost black anyway.  

“Blue it is,” Elide happily showed him the art of egg decorating.  She grabbed him a new egg and a white crayon and showed him the best method was first to draw on the egg with the crayon before dropping it into the dye, that way the design would show through.  “You only want to use the paint brush for small things,” she told him, “like polka dots.”

Lorcan eyed her egg from the corner of his eye and had to admit he was impressed with her artistry, “And how did you become so good at egg decorating?”

Elide flinched at the question, and Lorcan worried for a second that he’d said the wrong thing, but then a melancholy smile graced her lips and she said, “My mother taught me.  We used to practice making eggs for weeks leading up to Easter.”  Lorcan thought that was a bit odd, but didn’t voice that thought.  Lorcan didn’t know anything about Elide, but he could tell from the glassy look in her eyes that her parents were no longer with her.  Blinking, Elide shook away her nostalgic gloom and said, “Now all that’s left is to wait.”  She looked around the room, checking in on her friends, before offering, “Want to go outside for a bit?  Get some fresh air?”

She fluttered her eyelashes, and Lorcan felt as if someone sucker punched him.  That look.  Those eyes.  It was the exact same look she’d given him before asking if he wanted to decorate eggs with her.  And just like before he found himself nodding silently.  They slipped away quietly, without anyone stopping them, which Lorcan thought was a blessing, considering who his friends were.  The spring air was cold and crisp, and felt amazing against Lorcan’s skin.  He hadn’t realized how stifling it was in the apartment, surrounded by all those people.

Looking to Elide, he saw her rubbing her hands together furiously in an attempt to warm them up and realized with a dull blink that she’d forgotten to grab her coat.  “Here,” he offered, slipping his black leather jacket around her shoulders.

“Thanks,” she said, a pretty blush blooming across her cheeks.  She pulled the jacket closer around her shoulders and breathed in deeply.  Something ancient and instinctual reared up from deep within Lorcan as he watched Elide take in his scent.  A wave of warmth rippled outwards from his chest at the thought of her smelling a bit like him.  “So what brings you to Rifthold?”

Lorcan shrugged, “Work.”

“Yeah?  Does work bring you here a lot?”  She smiled tentatively at him and took a shy step towards him.  

“Not really. Every few years or so.”  He was only telling the truth, but when she turned her gaze away to hide her disappointment, Lorcan wanted to kick himself.  “I’ve been thinking of relocating, though.”  He wasn’t sure why he said it, because that wasn’t at all true.  But now that the words were out, they didn’t seem outrageous.  His friends were here, after all.  Rowan was here.  Elide was here.  Not that that meant anything.  Not yet, anyway.  

“Really?” Elide’s head snapped up and hope lit up behind her eyes.  Lorcan gulped, his mouth suddenly turning dry.  He’d never thought of leaving Nightingale and Company before.  Never even dreamed of it, but now, looking down at Elide’s large, doe eyes, it seemed like the best idea he’d ever had.  The flush over Elide’s cheeks darkened and she took in a shaky breath and stepped closer.  “I know we’ve just met, Lorcan,” his stomach flipped like a pancake when she said his name, “but I’ve really enjoyed spending time with you and,” she hesitated, then looked away.  When she looked back he saw fiery determination burning behind her gaze, “I’d really like to keep . . . spending time with you.”

The words were stilted and awkward, but they made Lorcan smile.  He liked spending time with her, too, and he wanted nothing more than to get to know her better.  In that moment, there was nothing more than the two of them and the prospect of what they could be.  He opened his mouth and was just about to tell her how much he’d like to take her up on his proposition, but before he could the shrill ring of his phone erupted from inside his coat pocket.

“Oh,” Elide said with a start.  She dug into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “It’s Maeve,” she told him, then winced.  “Sorry, didn’t mean to look.”

“Thanks,” he said when she handed him the phone.  He didn’t even think, he heard the name and his body went on auto-pilot.  Pressing the green button on his phone screen, he answered, “Hello?”  

Lorcan? Lorcan, where are you?  I need you.”  And like that he was lost.  His mind turned fuzzy, and he barely knew what he was saying. He agreed to meet up with her, to try and work something out.  Her voice was so calm, so sure, so familiar.  Like an old vice beckoning him to answer, and like an addict, he’d come running.  

With a final nod, Lorcan hung up the phone and returned to his surroundings.  Elide was looking at him wide eyed, and he winced at the resignation he saw there.  “Elide … I’m sor—”

“It’s fine,” she cut him off with a shrug.  Her lips thinned and she shrugged off his coat.  “I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Rifthold.”  Her words were cold and terribly polite.  He hated it.  But Maeve was waiting and so he grabbed his jacket from her.

“Maybe I’ll see you again?”  he asked, putting his jacket on,  “Later in the week?”

Eyes unyielding, she shrugged, “Maybe.  It was nice meeting you,” she said before turning and heading back into the apartment before he could say a word.

His phone buzzed in his hands and he looked down to see a text from Maeve.  Cursing under his breath, he pulled up his Maps app and began walking towards their meeting point.  Elide’s scent lingered on his jacket and he breathed in a lung full of it as he braced himself to walk back into the waiting arms of his very own drug.  His dark master.  Darkness was his friend, but this time, as Elide’s steely gaze burned through his mind, it didn’t seem too inviting.  

Chapter Text

 Elide sighed as she nursed the pink cocktail in front of her. Cool drops of water slid along the sides of the glass, pooling in between the cool glass and her warm fingers. Soon her skin would wrinkle and prune, but she couldn't care less. Not now, just two hours after Aelin's Easter party wrapped up—just two hours since Lorcan had left her spirits crushed on the side of the road. Huffing out a defeated breath, Elide felt pathetic. She could hear her uncle now, chastising her in the back of her mind—you knew the boy for less than a day and already you're a heartbroken mess? Pathetic. Taking a deep swig of her fruity tasting drink, relishing the the rush of alcohol saturating her mind and dulling her senses, she swiveled around on her bar stool and looked out towards the dance floor where other patrons of the club writhe and jerk to the rhythm of the music. Asterin was out on the floor . . . somewhere. It was hard to tell with the dark lighting and multiple strobe lights. The blonde had danced with three different men all ready, and it had been a while since Elide had last seen her. She wasn't worried, though. Asterin could take care of herself. And if she did happen to be in over her head, well . . .

Manon's golden eyes found hers, somehow reading her mind and knowing she was being thought of. Grinning, the light hit her teeth in just a way to make her look like a shark about to take a bite, Manon asked, “Dance floor calling your name, witchling?”

Elide frowned at the nickname—given to her by Manon and Asterin back n grade school when she'd developed an obsession for the occult. The obsession itself had only lasted a little while, but the nickname itself had stuck—before taking anothr sip of her drink. Her mind was starting to feel fuzzy. She loved it when her thoughts went all fuzzy. First it her thoughts would turn to static, then her belly would swirl with warmth, and eventually her limbs would turn numb—a blessed relief on her lower leg. Manon continued to stare, though, and so Elide stopped drinking before her belly's temperature could even raise one degree. “No, I was just,” she paused and sucked on her lower lip, trying to think of the right words. Unable to find them, she sighed and shook her head, “day dreaming, I guess?”

“Mhm,” the white haired woman hummed beside her, casually brushing her hair off her shoulder and flicking some gawking stranger in the face, “About a certain tall, dark, and handsome you met today?” Her lips quirked into a teasing smile, but her eyes flashed with dangerous interest.

“Kind of, but don't worry,” Elide quickly reassured, “you don't have to give him the talk or anything. I'm pretty sure he's in a relationship all ready.”

“What?” Manon's lip curled up disdainfully, making Elide smile. Manon's behavior when it came to Elide's dating life always amused her. If someone was interested in her, Manon would barely let the suitor talk to her, and if they weren't interested, then she'd scoff and sneer, blatantly commenting on their lack of taste. Once upon a time, Elide thought her behavior indicated Manon had a crush on her. The theory had never truly been ruled out, but she'd never expressed the idea, either. “Why do you think that?”

Elide blinked, her fuzzy mind taking its sweet old time to catch up to Manon's words, then even more time trying to figure out how to respond. “Someone—his girlfriend?—called. Maeve, I think.” She nodded to herself, “Yeah, Maeve.” Swiveling around on her stool again, Elide slammed her drink down on the bar top. She groaned, “Everything was going so well, too! We were really hitting it off—he was even telling me he was considering moving here—then she goes and calls him and in less than two freaking seconds he's gone. What the hell!” Slumping down to rest her forehead next to her drink, she confessed, “I really thought I liked him, you know? I mean, I know I only knew him for a few hours—which is pathetic, but—”

“Hey,” a warm hand pressed into the space between her shoulder and her neck. The weight of Manon's hand sent waves of radiating strength and comfort all the way down to the tips of her toe nails. “Maybe,” she stopped, then took a breath. Consoling had never been one of the woman's strong points, but Elide knew she was trying, “Maybe it'd not what you think. Maybe this Maeve bitch is his sister or something.” Elide huffed a laugh. “Fine,” Manon continued, her normal ferocious tone returning to her voice as her grasp on Elide tightened, “Maybe he's just a bastard. If that's the case we'll just kill him.” Although she couldn't see it, with her head face down on the bar, Elide could perfectly imagine the nonchalant shrug which accompanied her terrible words.

“Ooh, who are we killing?” Asterin's voice cooed from Elide's right. Sighing and sitting back up, Elide took in the blonde's disheveled clothing and hair with a barely raised brow. At least someone was having fun tonight. Asterin was a wild child—the epitome of a party girl—but she was still a Blackbeak, same as Manon. Sometimes Elide forgot that fact. And then sometimes—when the light disappeared into the endless depths of her dark eyes and she bared her teeth, looking all too wolfish for any sane person's liking—the fact refused ot be forgotten. “If it's tonight,” Asterin continued, her pupils blown with the anticipation of a possible fight, “just let me know and I'll . . .reschedule a few things.” Manon and Asterin shared a look, one that created twin smiles on their faces and that sent a shiver straight down Elide's spine.

“No! No—no fighting, no death—not tonight—”

“Tomorrow, then?” Asterin asked, head tilted.

“What's happening tomorrow?” A new voice asked and Elide almost threw her head back in exasperation. Swiveling around, Elide came face to face with Aelin; Rowan standing just behind her. Aelin was a dark horse at any given time or situation. No one could ever really predict what she was going to do—not even Aedion, and he'd been with her since her birth. This conversation could go a million different ways now that Aelin was here. She could be the voice of reason and diffuse the ticking time bomb that was the Blackbeak cousins or she could be the gasoline to the fire. Elide groaned, she needed another drink.

“Hey, you!” Manon pointed at Rowan who regarded her with cool, green eyes. “You're friends with that piece of shit, aren't you?”

Blinking slowly, Rowan shrugged, “You'll have to be a bit more specific.”

“Lucien,” Asterin snapped.

“Lorcan,” Elide corrected dully, dragging a hand down her face.This was getting ridiculous. The Blackbeak cousins were acting as if Lorcan had cheated on her or something. “And forget it, it's nothing.”

“Doesn't look like nothing,” Aelin challenged, squeezing in between Manon and Elide, much to Manon's sneering displeasure, and waved down the bar tender. “What'd he do?”

“Nothing! Honestly!” Elide was loosing her temper now. Sure, she was considered the quiet one amongst her friends, the patient one, the kind one—but she wasn't a voiceless doll. Her fingers tightened around her damp glass as an old, simmering pit of angry fire rekindled within the middle of her core. She's been that before—a doll. A nameless, raggedy old thing, and after moving out of her uncle's two years ago she vowed she'd never become that doormat of a person again. “Would you guys actually listen to me! It's no big deal.” Manon looked ready to say something, Asterin at least had the courtesy to look sheepish, and Aelin looked impressed by her anger. Freaking Aelin.

Sighing harshly, she continued before Manon could bulldoze her, “Look—did I enjoy my time with Lorcan today? Yes. Did I think he felt the same? Yes! Does it suck that he ditched me for someone else? Hell yes! But guess what?” Her mouth had turned dry during her speech and she quickly took one last drink of her nearly empty cocktail, “I'm a big girl—I'll get over it.”

“Of course you will,” Aelin nodded, then turned distracted to the bar tender who'd finally arrived to take her order.

Manon sniffed, “No one said you wouldn't.”

“He ditched you?” Rowan's voice startled Elide, making her jump slightly on her stool. She'd forgotten he was there. Blinking at him, the dark haired girl saw that he looked genuinely confused.

“Yeah, for someone named Maeve. She called and he went running to see her.”

“Maeve,” Rowan repeated, his voice deep and quiet. So quiet Elide would've missed his words had she not seen his mouth move. “In Rifthold.” Elide nodded, confused. Aelin and Rowan shared a glance—Elide could've sworn an entire conversation passed between them—and Rowan's jaw tightened, the small muscle along the right side pulsating out against the skin. “Excuse me,” the white haired man took a step back after giving Aelin a small nod, “I have to make a quick phone call.” Then he disappeared.

Aelin hummed and bit down on her lower lip. The bartender returned with her drinks and she took a small sip of hers while offering Rowan's to Asterin, “Here,” she said, “by the time he's back the ice will have melted.” Accepting the drink without so much as blinking, Asterin knocked the glass of whiskey back in one gulp.

Used to her friend's ability to drink like a fish, Elide asked, “Who's he calling?”

Shrugging, Aelin answered, “His cadre,” then, shaking her head, clarified, “his friends. Probably warning them about Maeve being in town.”

“Who is this chick anyway?” Manon asked, golden eyes flickering to Elide. She tried to convey her gratitude to the white haired woman for asking the question that had been burning on the edge of her tongue for the past several hours.

“Oh Maeve?” Aelin looked down into her blue colored drink, swirling it around casually. “Just a nightmare made flesh,” she took a long swig.

Asterin laughed, loudly and confidently, “God—how dramatic. A nightmare made flesh,” she bumped Elide's arm with her elbow. “What a load of bull—how bad can this bitch be?” She looked to Aelin, expecting for the other blonde to recant. To explain that this Maeve wasn't truly so bad as to warrant such a dramatic description, but when Aelin just took another long gulp, Asterin's grin fell. “Well?” She prompted, “How bad?” Elide waited for Aelin's response with baited breath.

Blue eyes connecting with black ones and Elide felt her heart stop. “Bad,” Aelin said, her lips tugged downwards into a frown. Elide had never seen her friend so serious. Gulping, she waved down the bartender for another drink. She was going to need it.

 

 

Chapter Text

It was Sunday, and just like every Sunday, Elide spent the morning holed up in her apartment deep cleaning the place. Counters were wiped down with bleach; photo frames, lamps, the TV screen, and decorative glass was dusted; the wooden floors were vacuumed and swiffered; her shower tub was scrubbed down; and drains were unclogged.  The dark haired girl’s mother had a job, once upon a time, in the cleaning industry and she had passed all her learned skills down to her only daughter.  Her father, with his background in the marine corps, had instilled discipline and commitment into her from the day she learned to tell time.  Take those two factors and add in the fact that Elide herself was practically never home due to either work of her friends, and Sunday was the only day of the week her household chores could be completed.  

Unfortunately, most other people also felt like Sunday was the day to complete chores, too.  Fortunately, Elide was naturally an early riser and could usually finish her external chores--grocery shopping and laundry--before eleven o’clock.  Usually.  This morning, however, was different.  Instead of waking up naturally at six o’clock--a time that made Asterin hiss--Elide was woken up at five-thirty--a time that made her hiss--by the sound of a hammer pounding relentlessly into a wall in the apartment adjacent to hers.  

Elide had been expecting a new neighbor for several weeks now.  The unit next to hers had been vacant for over a month and the landlord had been desperately trying to find a new tenant.  It was a good apartment, similar to her own with a few minor differences such as the colors of the walls. Elide hadn’t understood why it had taken so long, and had been relieved--if only for the sake of her landlord--when she heard it’d finally been taken off the market.  So at five-thirty in the morning, with her pillow over her head, Elide also couldn’t understand why her new neighbor felt the need to move in at such an un-godly hour.

Still, the dark haired girl was an opportunist if there ever was one, and she didn’t let let something as inconsequential as an early wake up ruin her day, so with a deep, almost monstrous groan, Elide had rolled herself out of bed and began her day.

Now, several hours later, Elide regretted that decision with every fiber of her being. It was almost noon and she had almost nothing to show for it.  Her new neighbor, who continued producing sounds akin to a construction site, apparently had also decided that move in day was the best time to do the laundry.  Her apartment building only had one washer and dryer in the basement, and never before had Elide had to wait to do a load before.  It was ridiculous considering the time of day, but Elide grit her teeth and moved on with her morning routine.  

Or, she would have, if she weren’t out of almost all her cleaning supplies.  And since the local grocery store down the street wouldn’t be open until ten--since it was Sunday --she had to wait.  She hated waiting.

Elide tried going back to sleep, but couldn’t manage it thanks to that damn hammering.  Seriously though, what could they be doing in there that needed that many nails?  She tried watching TV, but nothing good was on at six in the morning, and the news just repeated itself after the first half hour of information.  Thankfully she had some bills to pay, emails to respond to, a checkbook to balance, and was able to get a head start on a project for work.  Still, even when she’d gotten through all that, it was barely ten, and after a quick glance in the laundry room--her neighbor’s clothes were done, they just hadn’t claimed them yet--she headed out to the grocery store.  

It was the first thing that went right for her.  Sunday was normally the busiest day for grocery stores, but didn’t tend to become busy until at least noon.  With her list in hand, Elide easily navigated the familiar aisles and within the hour had everything she needed to last a month.  Standing in line and double checking that’d she’d gotten everything on her list, a crash sounded behind her, making Elide’s eyes widen and her body to freeze up.  

“I am so sorry!” A woman’s voice cried almost immediately after the crash.  Turning around to see what had happened, Elide sucked in a gasp.  From what Elide could tell a woman had crashed her cart into a man’s, causing him to fall against a tower of canned soup.  No one was hurt, and besides a few dented cans, there wasn’t any damage, but none of that was the reason for Elide’s gasp.  She gasped because the man was Lorcan.  Lorcan, who had been shoved back into the cans, didn’t look hurt, but he didn’t look happy, either.  

The woman who crashed into him continued a string of apologies while Lorcan, with his long dark hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, stared her down like a stone wall.  His face was void of all emotion, and it scared the hell out of Elide.  She’d met him while he was pissed, which, safe to say, wasn’t the best emotion to display during a first impression, but at least it was an emotion.  This Lorcan, the one she shamelessly spied from across the grocery, was devoid of anything human. He looked so cold, so uncaring.  Elide tried to explain it away--maybe he just wasn’t a morning person--but instinct told her something different.  And since that innate instinct of hers had gotten her out of many a dire circumstance, she turned back around and stepped up to the register, pretending that she had never set eyes on Lorcan Salvaterre.

Elide quickly walked her groceries back home, limping slightly due to the stress the extra weight her bags added to her already precarious ankle, and after getting back into her apartment, quickly hobbled down to the laundry room.  Huffing out a hot burst of air out her nostrils at the sight of her neighbor’s wet apparel still in the washer, Elide’s hands curled into frustrated fists as she walked back up to her home.  It was moments like these that Elide wished she had an ounce of Manon’s assertion, or Aelin’s charm, or even Asterin’s ‘I don’t give a damn ’ attitude.  Maybe if she had just one ounce of any of those characteristics, she’d have her laundry done by now.  

Forcing herself to take a deep, calming breath, Elide pushed the thought of laundry aside.  Wishing and hoping wouldn’t change her situation, she decided.  She needed to look at what she had before her and what she could do here and now.  So, with a hoard of plastic bags before her, Elide began to unpack her groceries and put everything in its rightful place.  Once she finished that small task, she began cleaning her apartment. Cleaning was good--cathartic, even.  It allowed Elide’s mind to empty and her body to go on autopilot.  She was able to unload and relax, and by the end of it, her mind and body usually felt as clean and uncluttered as her apartment.  

Today was a bit harder, thanks to the surprise appearance of Lorcan at the grocery store.  What he’d been doing there in the first place, Elide had half a mind to wonder.  It’d been over a month since Aelin’s party and Rowan’s dark haired friend hadn’t been brought up since that night at the bar.  But remembering that night at the bar--Rowan’s brusque disappearance, Aelin’s frowning mouth--led Elide to think of things like Maeve, and who she was to Lorcan and why, why, why . . .

No , she stubbornly told herself.   No, I will not wander down that path for it is dark and full of terrors . She shook her head with a sigh, she was definitely watching too much TV.

Rubbing at a worry line in her forehead, Elide cleaned up her cleaning supplies and looked at the time.  It was past two in the afternoon.  Surely her neighbor had fetched their clothes by now.  There was only so long one could forget about one’s laundry, after all.  Even on moving day.  So with a steely determination, Elide hobbled down into the basement and with baited breath, turned on the lights.  

And there, clear as day, was her neighbor’s laundry.  Untouched, undisturbed, and slightly smelling of mildew now.  Biting down on a shriek of rage that would make a banshee jealous, Elide turned heel and stomped--as best as her gimp ankle could stomp--back up the stairs.  Her uncle once said that if wishes were horses, beggars would ride, but damn if she wasn’t being carried by a stampede of wild stallions right then and there because right then and right there she slammed her fist three times against her neighbor’s door.

The hammering--that damn, rutting awful hammering--stopped and the door opened.  And there, standing across the threshold from her, was a shirtless and sweaty Lorcan.   Oh, fuck.

“Elide?”  Lorcan asked, his brows furrowing and his chest heaving deeply.  “What are you--?”

“Lorcan?”  She asked, almost reeling back from the shock of it.   Lorcan was her neighbor?  What were the odds?  He did mention moving to Rifthold last time they spoke, but, “You’re my neighbor?”  She asked, wanting to clarify.

He opened his mouth, about to respond, when a voice in the background called, “Lorcan?  Who is it it?”  The voice was deep and sultry, wild and ancient and utterly feminine.  A woman walked around the corner.  Her skin was marble white and her black hair darker than any Elide had ever seen before.  She was tall, too.  Taller than even Lorcan, with the figure meant to intimidate any and all genders. Elide knew, with every fiber of her being, that this was Maeve.   Nightmare made flesh, Aelin had said.  For once, she wasn’t being dramatic.

Maeve took one look at Elide, small, broken Elide and her red lips pulled back into a slight sneer.  “Who’s this?”

Once glance at Lorcan--with his mouth still agape and his skin turning ashen--and Elide could tell he wasn’t functioning properly.  Squaring her shoulders and mentally bracing herself, Elide looked the taller woman dead in the eye, “Elide Lochan.  Lorcan’s new neighbor.”

Lorcan’s head jerked and he snapped back into the present.  Maeve raised a brow and smirked down at Lorcan.  “Lorcan’s neighbor?”  She repeated, her voice like a stream flowing over rocks, “Don’t you mean ours ?”

Elide blinked.  Once.  Twice.  She stopped herself before thrice.  “What?”  She asked, looking at Lorcan for all of two seconds before returning her gaze to Maeve’s.  

Maeve wrapped an arm around Lorcan’s shoulder, her long fingernails reminding Elide of claws.  “We’ve just moved in,” she said, deliberately slowly, as if speaking to a child, “together.”

“Oh,” Elide breathed, feeling for some reason as though she’d been sucker punched in the belly.  She needed a moment.  Her brows furrowed as her brain processed all this new information.  “Oh,” she repeated, and realized that although it’d been over a month ago, something deep inside of her had held on hope that Lorcan would reappear into her life and they would pick up where they left off.  It was stupid, but she’d kick herself for it later.  Later, and away from the all seeing eyes of Maeve.  Maeve, who was smiling down at her like Elide was a fly caught in her net and she couldn’t wait to devour her.  No.  No, no, no.  Elide knew a push when she saw it, and Maeve had pushed her.  And godsdammit , Elide was going to push back.  “Right,” she drawled, rolling her eyes.  “Thank you for informing me about relationship status, but I really didn’t ask.”

Maeve’s eyes narrowed, “What is it you want again?”

Smiling as sweetly and as innocently as possible, Elide tilted her head to the side and said, “I just wanted to let you know that your laundry is still taking up space in the washer and officially smells like shit.”  She turned to go, but then stopped herself and added, “Oh, and if you don’t collect it within the half hour, I’m throwing it all in the trash.  Welcome to the building!”

It was petty, and could possibly get her into a load of trouble down the line, but Maeve’s glare, and Lorcan’s look of pure astonishment definitely made it worth it.             

Chapter Text

Elide sighed as she walked down her hallway towards the safety of her apartment.  As a child psychologist, she was used to her days being long, but today was a long day.  

All she wanted to do once she was home was to turn off her phone, strip down, and take a long, soothing bubble bath.  Preferably with Enya playing in the background.  Then, after she decompressed, she’d order the largest freaking pizza her local pizzeria sold, and pig out while watching one of her favorite movies.  It was either going to be The Princess Bride or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, she hadn’t decided yet.  Or both, she supposed, both was good.

Just as she was wondering if she had any ice cream left in her freezer, and whether or not it’d be worth it to run down to the grocery to buy a tub, the door on her left opened and Elide found herself being stared down by the Mythic Bitch herself: Maeve.

“Oh, Elide.  I thought that was you,” her red lips split into what some would call a smile.  

Elide’s hands curled into fists.  If Maeve started a fight today, Elide would gladly finish it.  

“What do you want, Maeve?”  Dark eyes flitting over the taller woman’s shoulder, Elide asked, “Where’s Lorcan?”

“Out,” she replied curtly, flicking a lock of inky black hair behind her shoulder.  “Look, I feel like we got off on the wrong foot.  Why don’t you come in,” she stepped to the side, silently inviting her in.  “I just made some banana bread.”

Brows raised, Elide looked at Maeve like she’d grown a second head.  Although Maeve looked contrite---sheepish, even---an invisible hand---one that had been with Elide her entire life and had never steered her wrong---desperately tried to pull her away.  

“No, thanks,” she said slowly, cursing herself for being polite even to someone who made her stomach turn.  Her mother hadn’t raised a brat, though.  

At Maeve’s crestfallen face, she added, “I’ve had a long day.”

Perking up, Maeve offered with a hesitant smile, “I’ve got ice cream, too.”  Elide pursed her lips.  Ice cream did sound really good right now.  “Oh, come on,” Maeve insisted, catching onto Elide’s pause, “I won’t bite.”

Knowing deep down inside that she’d regret it, but also really wanting that ice cream, Elide shrugged and entered the apartment.  The layout was the same as her own, so Elide easily found her way to the kitchen.  “So,” Maeve started, grabbing a pair of bowls and spoons before grabbing the ice cream.  It was Rocky Road, Elide’s favorite.  Maybe this encounter wouldn’t be so terrible after all.  

“Why did your day suck?”  She began scooping out the ice cream,  “And is there anything I can do to help?  My day wasn’t fantastic, either.  So helping you will actually help me.  Get my mind off it, you know?”

Maeve smiled tentatively, handing Elide her bowl of ice cream.  Elide watched as she took a bite, and wondered how someone so vicious, so evil, could look so normal.  She chalked it up to the power of ice cream.  

After taking a bite of her own Rocky Road goodness, Elide answered, “I don’t think you can help,” she rolled her eyes, “well, unless you can stop shitty parents from being so shitty.”

Maeve’s lips puckered, “No, can’t say that I can.”

Elide hummed and the two continued eating their ice cream in silence.  The only noise around them was the soft clinking of spoons against bowls.  

With her spoon in her mouth, Elide looked around the room.  The carton of ice cream was still out on the kitchen island, the banana bread that Maeve had mentioned earlier---Elide would bet anything that it was actually store bought---was on a plate on the kitchen counter, and Maeve stood quietly across from her, pouting into her bowl of ice cream.

Deciding to be generous, Elide offered an olive branch and broke the silence by asking, “So why did your day suck?”

There was a glint in Maeve’s dark eyes, gone as soon as it came, and was chased away by large, silvery tears.  “Oh,” she sniffled, her nose turning pink.  

Elide watched, paralyzed like a deer in the headlights, as Maeve began to cry in front of her, “It’s just---it’s just,” she stopped and wrapped her arms around herself.  She sniffed, “I don’t---I don’t know what I did.  What went wrong.  I---everything was fine, and then--and then,” she swallowed thickly.  

She looked so . . . pathetic.  Elide never thought, not even in her wildest dreams, that she’s witness Maeve---the Mythic Bitch---so vulnerable.  It was as shocking as it was humbling.

Reaching out across the island, Elide patted her arm in an attempt to comfort her.  She couldn’t stand to watch anyone cry, apparently not even Maeve.  “It’s okay, Maeve, everything will be okay.  What happened?”

Hiccuping, Maeve shook her head, her tears flying off her face.  “Lorcan . . . Lorcan left.”  Elide sucked in a sharp breath.  So he did it.  He finally did it.  He left her.  It was about damn time!  Whatever their relationship was, it wasn’t healthy.  “We got in a fight,” Maeve continued, looking like she was about to hurl.  “And---and he left, and, oh, Elide, he’s never been gone this long before!  What if he’s been hurt, what if he’s stuck on the side of the road, what if he’s in the hospital in a coma or something, what if---” she slapped a pale hand across her mouth, stopping herself before she thought up anything worse.

She really was worried.   Elide was skeptical at first that Maeve could worry about anything other than herself, but she could see the panic, pure and dark and unadulterated, lurking within her eyes.  She was two seconds away from a full blown panic attack.  Standing up and quickly walking around the island, Elide tried to get Maeve to calm down.  “Breathe, Maeve, breath.”  She placed her hands on the taller woman’s shoulders, “Whatever happened, I’m sure Lorcan’s okay.  He’ll come back, Maeve.”

“You think so?”  Maeve sniffled.  Elide nodded reassuringly.  Lorcan was responsible, he wouldn’t go anywhere without his wallet, so if he was injured and in the hospital, Maeve would’ve already heard.  And it was the twenty-first century, Lorcan had a cell phone and was resourceful, no way he’d be stranded anywhere for long.  And, he did live here, even if he had left Maeve.  He’d have to come back eventually, if only to collect his things.  

“Oh, Elide,” Maeve smiled, her voice suspiciously strong and without a hint of a wobble.  “I knew I could count on you.”

“What?”  Elide asked, stepping back just as Maeve pulled out her phone and began dialing.  

Suddenly the tears were gone.  So was the pink nose.  She looked completely normal.  The sight gave Elide whiplash.  

Maeve in all her confident, arrogant glory was back, and whoever she had called picked up.

“Lorcan?”  Elide stopped breathing.  “Good.  I want you to come home.”  She paused, listening, then looked at Elide and smirked, “Oh, don’t worry about that.  Elide and I are friends now.  Aren’t we, Elide?”  Her smirk slithered further up her face, “Yes, she’s with me right now.  Say hi, Elide.”

Phone suddenly in her face, Elide blinked and stuttered out, “Umm, hi?”

Snatching the phone back to her ear before Elide could hear Lorcan’s response, Maeve tapped her fingernails against the granite countertop and said, “Oh, just girl talk.”  She winked at Elide, “Don’t be silly.  Elide thinks you should come home, too.”

Elide felt her face redden with anger and frustration that she knew she’d never be able to articulate.  It took a while, but the situation finally dawned on her.  Maeve had used her.  She’d set a trap, lured her in, and played her like a fiddle.  Cursing her bleeding heart and stupid courtesies, Elide high-tailed it out of there.

She didn’t need to be there when the two had their reunion.

One bath, two pizzas, and three and a half hours later, Elide was hunkered down on her couch, halfway through The Princess Bride when a knock sounded at her door.  At first, she ignored it.  Her phone was still off, so it could’ve been one of her friends checking in on her.  They all had spare keys to her apartment, though, and could let themselves in.

More knocking.  So it wasn’t a friend.  Elide groaned and burrowed further her blanket, hoping that whoever it was would just go away.  

“Elide,” Lorcan’s voice, muffled by the door, called out before he knocked again.  “Elide, it’s me.”  Elide stayed right where she was, weighing the pros and cons of answering the door.

He knocked again and she groaned before flailing herself off the couch.  Taking her blanket with her, Elide stomped over to her foyer and opened the door.

“What?”  She asked in lieu of a hello.  She was fresh out of courtesies for the day.

“I, umm,”  Lorcan paused, unsure how to proceed.  He’d never seen Elide’s grouchy side before.  Shoving his hands into his pockets, Lorcan’s face shuddered closed, leaving no trace of any emotion.  He was a blank canvas.  “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”  He looked away, “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

Blinking, Elide waited for him to say something else.   Anything else.  When he didn’t, she leaned back on the balls of her feet, “Okay.”  She drew out the word, giving him the opportunity to say more.  If that was it, though---and it was looking to be---she was just going to go back to her nest on the couch and continue her movie in peace.  She really didn’t feel like being drawn into round two of . . . whatever this was.

“Well, I’m okay, so . . .” she was about to close her door when---

“Thank you,” Lorcan burst out, his dark eyes desperately peering into hers, trying to silently communicate something to her.  “For helping Maeve.  Thank you.”  His words were jilted, awkward.  Like he wasn’t used to expressing gratitude.  

Nodding, Lorcan took a step back, about to turn and leave.  Eyes narrowing, Elide couldn’t help herself as she asked, “What was the fight about?”

Lorcan stopped mid-turn, “What?”

“What was the fight about?”  Elide repeated, leaning against her door frame.  “The one that finally got you to leave her?”

Blushing ever so slightly, the dark haired man glared at her, “It’s none of your business.”

Pointing an accusatory finger at him, Elide disagreed, “It became my business once Maeve used me like a pawn in some sick, twisted game.”  Lorcan at least had the decency to look cowed.  “So what was it?”

“You,” Lorcan admitted, looking down at his feet.  His hands were balled into fists and Elide wasn’t sure if that was because he wanted to hit something or if it was an attempt to hide his trembling.  “We fought about you.”

Elide released a shaky breath.  She hadn’t been expecting that.  She didn’t know what to do with that.  

Shaking his head, Lorcan took two steps away from before Elide regained control of her mind and tongue, “Why do you keep going back to her?”  Her voice was probably a bit too loud considering the time of night and who lived next door, but Elide had stopped caring hours ago.  “She’s horrible , Lorcan, so why---”

“Don’t talk like you know her,” he snapped, his face twisting into a snarl.  “Or me.”  He could glare and glare until his eyeballs shriveled up and rolled out of his head, but Elide wouldn’t be bullied into silence.  Not now, not ever again.  

“You’re right,” she nodded.  “I don’t know you.  But I got a glimpse of you.”  Lorcan flinched at the reminder of their first meeting.  “What happened to that Lorcan?  The one who decorated Easter eggs with me?  The one who hated parties and crafts like egg decorating , but still went because his friends asked?  The one who listened when I spoke, who noticed when I shifted or flinched and tried to figure out why ?  Where’s that Lorcan?  The considerate, witty, loyal Lorcan?

“Because I liked that Lorcan.  But this Lorcan,” she gestured towards him, “that’s in front of me right now?”  She grimaced and shook her head, “I don’t think I want to know him at all.”

Lorcan stared at her like a fish, all wide eyes and mouth agape.  Elide didn’t wait for his response, whether it was apologetic or admonishing, and slammed the door in his face.                

Chapter Text

Aelin could not wait for tonight's party. It was gonna be the party that ended all parties. It was New Year's Eve and everyone was coming. All her closest friends, acquaintances from work, frenemies, and then some.  They’d all be here in just a few short hours.  

Just a few short hours, shit they had their work cut out for them. She'd tasked Lysandra and Aedion with procuring food and snacks for tonight; Aedion to carry it, and Lysandra to keep them on task.  Technically Aedion could’ve done it by himself, but lord knew what trouble that boy could get into unsupervised.  He’d probably blow all the money on pinatas or something.

Elide, Manon, and Asterin were in charge of cooking the food once it arrived. Or, well, Elide would cook, and Asterin and Manon would taste test and offer any necessary moral support. Why the dark eyed girl needed moral support, Aelin wasn't entirely sure . . . she assumed it had to do with Lorcan, but last she'd heard, Elide had all but cussed the man out.

Lorcan Salvaterre. He'd gotten an invitation just by being Rowan’s friend, but if he were anyone else's he'd be celebrating the night elsewhere. Aelin didn't know the dark haired man all that well, or at all, really, but from what she'd heard from Elide and the rest of Rowan's cadre, she didn't like the sound of him one bit. She hoped he and Maeve would live unhappily ever after somewhere far, far away. Hell, they could even live happily together, just so long as they left Rifthold.

It’d taken a long time for Aelin to feel safe in this city, to feel comfortable, and to stop looking over her shoulder every five feet. She'd gone to great lengths to rid Rifthold of its dangers, of its nefarious underbelly. She didn't want to have to start all over again thanks to the couple from hell.  Maeve might not seem all too dangerous, not on the outside, but Aelin knew better than to be lulled into a false sense of security because of some pretty face.

Shaking her head, Aelin dispersed those thoughts and returned to the present. Looking around the living room of her apartment, she saw Dorian and Chaol dutifully moving sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows into her guest bedroom for the guests who planned on spending the night. After they finished that task, Aelin would have them set up some cheap folding tables she'd rented and they could start setting out the snacks once Lysandra and Aedion returned.

Looking at her watch--only three hours until the party was due to start--Aelin hoped that'd be soon. She also hoped Evangeline and Nehemia returned from walking Fleetfoot before her cousin and friend. Lysandra had a nasty protective streak when it came to her younger sister, and even though she knew the young girl could take care of herself, and that Nehemia was with her--Nehemia, proud owner of a brown belt in karate--if Evangeline wasn't back before her, the dark haired beauty would call in the national guard while simultaneously chewing Aelin’s ear out.

Just as she was about to pull her phone out and call her long time friend, Nehemia and Evangeline walked through the door following a bouncing and barking Fleetfoot. “Oh good, you're back!”

Nehemia narrowed her eyes at Aelin, crossing her toned arms over her chest, “You weren't worried, were you?” Suspicion coated her tone, and Aelin had to hold back a wince. Nehemia could take care of herself. Aelin knew that. Nehemia knew that Aelin knew that. But if the dark skinned woman thought Aelin was worried about her, her pride would be hurt and she'd be pissed. And a pissed Nehemia was just as bad a protective Lysandra.

God, why did she have so many willful friends?

Hands up in a classic ' don’t shoot’ fashion, Aelin gave her friend a sharp grin and reassured her. “Never,” she said, feeling some tension in her shoulders fade away when Nehemia's smile mirrored her own. Rolling her eyes and putting her hands down, she joked, “If anything, I was worried you two had kidnapped my dog.”

Fleetfoot barked and came up to lean against her owner, silently begging for affection. Smile softening, Aelin reached down and scratched the dog behind her ears.

“One of these days, Aelin,” Evangeline called from the couch, a terribly gleeful smile on her face. “One of these days.”

Laughing, Aelin shook her head and said, “Hellion.” The young girl’s smile widened with pride before she turned and focused her attention on the TV.

“All right,” Aelin said, mostly to herself, and clapped her hands as she tried to refocus her thoughts. “What next?” The apartment was almost finished, it just needed a few more touch ups here or there, Elide would start the food once Lysandra and Aedion arrived, then there was . . .

“Well,” Nehemia's voice, dryer than any desert, cut through her mind's ramblings, “You should probably start getting ready.”

Aelin blinked at her friend once. Twice. Thrice. “What?”

Raising a brow, Nehemia’s brown eyes gave Aelin a once over. “Party's going to start soon,” she hedged. Then with a smirk asked, “Were you really planning on wearing stained jeans and a holey t-shirt to the party?”

Aelin looked down at her clothes. Yes, they were shoddy, but they were her pre-party clothes! She'd change, obviously. She double checked her watch. She still had plenty of time. “I'll get ready soon, it won't take long.”

Snorting, Nehemia cocked her head to the side and asked, “Really, Aelin? Remember the last time you said that? I think it was junior year, and--”

A blush with the heat to rival the fire of Brannon, Aelin squawked and headed for her room, “Okay, fine! You win! I'm going!”


 

Turned out, Nehemia had been right to send Aelin off to get ready. Although she hadn't taken the full three hours to prepare, it had been a close thing. She always underestimated how long she needed to shower, pick and outfit, do her hair and makeup, pick a new outfit, touch up her makeup, and then decide on accessories. It happened everytime, and every time she was taken by surprise.

Thank god she had such willful friends.

When she finally re-entered the living room, she saw that several people had already arrived. Those that had never heard the term ' fashionably late ’ apparently. Amongst the early birds were a few of Manon’s friends, Sorrel, Vesta, and Imogen. If those three were here, then eight more women would be arriving within the hour. Manon called them her Thirteen, which Aelin thought was a little unoriginal but still sounded pretty cool. They were Manon's closest--read, only--friends. Besides Elide, of course, but that was different.

Ansel, Ilias, and Mikhail were here, too, which didn't surprise Aelin, since they never stayed late and made up for it by always arriving early.

Emrys and Malakai were just walking in, Luca trailing not too far behind, holding a bottle of wine. That was awfully nice of them, Aelin would have to personally thank them later.

“Aelin!” A voice giggled from behind her. Turning around, Aelin found Asterin smiling gleefully at her, a glass of rum and coke in her hand and a haze over her eyes. Aelin would've rolled her eyes if it had been anyone but Asterin. Everyone knew the girl liked to party and had perfected the art of maintaining a light buzz. “Girl you look hot!”

Smirking, Aelin looked down at herself. She was wearing a tight black dress that hugged all her curves and left nothing to the imagination. Hell, it was so tight she couldn't even wear underwear with it.

She'd bought the dress ages ago and had never gotten around to wearing it. She probably never would have, either, if it hadn't been for Rowan. He'd spotted it a few weeks ago and stared at it until Aelin had finally asked if he liked it.

“Wear this for me,” he'd whispered in response, his voice hoarse and weak. “Please.”

Well how could she say no to that?

It wasn't anything too special, especially with its jewel neckline or its long sleeves, but the back, that's what made it. Or, well, the lack of it did. Where there should have been fabric, there was only skin all the way down, ending just before the swell of her ass.

She'd done her hair up, too, so everyone would have a view of the scarred and tattooed flesh of her back, and the only jewelry she wore were her golden, dangling earrings, crafted to look like dragons. Add a pair of black pumps, and she looked like hell in heels.

“I know,” she told Asterin confidently, making her laugh.

Leaning in to touch one of the dragon earrings, the other blonde whispered conspiratorially, “If things don't work out with Rowan, give me a call yeah?”

Chuckling, Aelin nodded, “Will do.”

Puckering her lips and giving Aelin an air kiss, Asterin took her leave.

Soon party guests began showing up in earnest. First was Dorian’s cousin, Roland, with two of the Thirteen--Faline and Fallon, if Aelin wasn't mistaken--which made Manon go into mama bear mode. Lovely.

Then there were Kharis and Deji, Nehemia's younger brothers.  They were mostly invited so Evangeline wouldn't be the only minor in the group.

Next were Kaltain Rompier, Aelin’s former arch-nemesis turned begrudging friend, along with her latest loser of a beau.

Nesryn came followed by a gaggle of people Aelin had never met before, but she shrugged that off. Faliq was a shrewd woman, if she liked these people enough to bring them to Aelin's home, then they must be all right.

Finally, an hour after the party officially began Rowan walked through her door along with the rest of his cadre.  

His green eyes immediately found hers and then widened as he took in what she was wearing. Freezing in the middle of the living room, his eyes traced her every movement as strode towards him. Heart thumping almost painfully in her chest, Aelin smiled, her face shining like a confident, golden sun, and she performed a graceful twirl, giving him a peek at her back, before kissing his cheek.

“Like what you see?” She asked, her mouth right next to his ear. She was pressed so close against him, she could feel the tremor her words sent down his body.

Groaning lowly, his hands came up to rest on her hips. “Aelin,” he let out a short laugh, his warm breath fanning against her neck as he asked, “are you trying to kill me?”

“Not actively,” she said, then took his earlobe into her mouth, just for fun.

The hands on her hips trembled and tightened, his blunt fingernails digging through the fabric of her dress and into her skin. “Aelin,” he said, as softly as a prayer.  

Somewhere from the crowd came a harsh wolf whistle, making Aelin jump. She was going to kill Aedion.

Pulling away, she decided she'd deal with her cousin later and smiled up at Rowan, “Oops,” she stuck out her tongue, leaning against him as she said, “I guess we got a little carried away.”

Rowan huffed out a laugh and reached up to stroke his thumb against her cheek. “Maybe just a little.” This time it was him who leaned in to whisper into her ear, “Just wait until everyone leaves. I'll carry you away all night long.”

“I'll hold you to that, buzzard,” she responded. Turning her head, Aelin pressed a quick peck to his lips before stepping back. Taking his hand, and preening when he intertwined their fingers, she led him into the thick of the party.


 

It was a minute until midnight and the party had been a wonderful success. We'll, almost. There had been a slight Lorcan issue--he’d invited Maeve, the dumbass--but it had been handled and dealt with almost an hour ago now, and there had been no drama since.

Aelin and Rowan stood by a window, watching as small white flakes fell to the ground. The snow most likely wouldn't stick, but it was pretty all the same. And the drafty window provided a slight reprieve from the heat her guests were creating. Rowan stood behind her, his arms around her waist and his chin resting on her shoulder. Every now and again he'd place a kiss against the curve her her jaw, the line of her neck, the spot behind her ear, making Aelin would shiver and smile like a giddy child.

Soon the countdown would begin, and she'd turn around to kiss Rowan; bring in the year with him. She hadn't had someone to kiss on New Year's sincerely Sam, and that was . . . it felt like a lifetime ago.

Although part of her, a part that would always belong to Sam, twanged painfully at the thought of moving on, a bigger part knew he'd want her to do so, that he wanted her to be happy. Rowan kissed her neck again, and her heart soared, drowning out the small twang in its elation.

Twisting her neck to sneak a kiss to some unseen part of Rowan's face, making him chuckle, she basked in the happiness he brought her.

The countdown was starting. Thirty seconds, twenty nine, twenty eight . . . “Aelin,” Rowan mumbled. She could feel every syllable his lips made against her skin, raising bumps along her neck. She hummed, letting him know she was listening.

“Aelin, I love you.” It was so quiet, Aelin almost missed it. Then thought she'd dreamed it.

Turning in his arms, she looked at him with wide eyes and slightly parted lips. Rowan stared back at her, a small smile on his lips. Leaning in until his lips were a hair's breadth away from hers, he said it again, “I love you.” And kissed her.

If Aelin had thought she had dreamt it, the kiss proved her wrong. There was no way she could dream such a kiss. It was so light, so tender and chaste and full of love, it filled her up and made her feel like she could fly. No dream could ever do that kiss justice.

Rowan pulled away and Aelin gave chase, wrapping an arm around his neck so he couldn't go far. Resting their foreheads together, she looked deep into his forest green eyes and smiled at him. “Rowan,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. Pressing a brief kiss to his lips, she pulled back, “I,” she kissed him again, “love,” kiss, “you,” kiss, “too,” she kissed once more, addicted to his lips.

Then, feeling he needed to hear it all in one go, she said, “I love you, too.”

People around them began to cheer and holler as the countdown finished. Aelin didn't care about any of that, though, the only thing she cared about was standing right before her, looking down at her like she was the most precious thing in the entire world.

Reaching up onto her tiptoes, Aelin pulled him down for another kiss, one worthy or bringing in the New Year.

Breaking away one last time, she smiled mischievously at him, “Rowan,” she said, oh so innocently. He hummed, his eyes glazed over with unspoken heat, “Did you know,” she leaned up to whisper into his ear, “that I’m not wearing any underwear?”

Aelin .”








Chapter Text

Elide bit off half of her hummus covered carrot with a bit more force than was absolutely necessary, but could anyone blame her?  No, no they could not, because Lorcan--freaking Lorcan Salvaterre--was here, at Aelin’s New Year’s Eve party with Maeve.   Freaking Maeve.  

Elide knew for a fact that Lorcan;s invitation hadn’t included a plus one, so what the hell?  If they wanted to spend the night together, they could’ve done it elsewhere.  Bringing her here was just freaking rude.  And inconsiderate!  Elide chomped off another bit of carrot, she really didn’t need this tonight.

Holidays were never good for people in her line of work--what was it about the holidays that made people so nasty to their family members, anyway?--so she was already on edge because of that.  Add in the fact that her favorite pizzeria was temporarily out of business due to renovations, there nothing was good on TV right now, her hot water was acting spotty at best, and her ankle had been giving her more grief than usual lately . . . and well, Elide had had better days.  

She knew she shouldn’t have gone out tonight.  She hated New Year’s, it was a pointless holiday.  She’d much rather be at home, curled up in a nest of blankets, and watching The Holiday or something.  But no.  Elide had allowed herself to be dragged out of her sanctuary by Asterin and Manon, shoved into one of the blonde’s too tight dresses, and primped until she felt like some prize winning poodle.

To be fair to her friends, they were just trying to be good friends.  She had been spending too much time at work lately, and kept rescheduling plans because of it.  When she did manage to hang out with them, she always looked two paychecks away from becoming a bum, or so Aelin had once said.  But still, did they have to make her wear this ?    

On Asterin it’d be stunning, sexy, even.  On her, it made her look like a child trying to play dress up.  The blue dress was a good two inches shorter than Elide was comfortable with, had no sleeves, and a ridiculously plunging neckline that showed off way too much of her cleavage.  Asterin had told her she looked great, that she should just loosen up, but Elide felt too vulnerable to even entertain the idea.  She hadn’t worn something this revealing since before she hit puberty.  

And the heels they put her in!  She knew she was short--she barely came to Manon or Asterin’s shoulder--but these things were an accident waiting to happen and made her busted ankle throb with every step.  

First chance she got, she was chucking the shoes and burning the dress.

The only reprieve she’d gotten all day was before the party even started, when she’d been tasked to cook some food.  She’d prepared some mini hot dogs, meatballs, a few veggie platters, made some hummus.  It had been wonderful and so very peaceful.  The kitchen was like her natural habitat, a safe place for her to thrive. The only thing to distract her there had been Manon and Asterin’s attempts to steal the food she’d been making, and that had been more humorous than anything.

Now though, thanks to Lorcan’s asinine decision to bring Maeve to the party, the night had gone from intensely irritating to downright shit.  “That’s it,” she said to Sorrel, Manon’s green eyed friend, “I’m out.”  Finishing her carrot, Elide brushed imaginary crumbs off her hands and headed for the coat closet to grab her things.  

“Elide!”  Maeve’s voice, saturated with false cheer, reached her ears, making her stop dead in her tracks.  Frowning, Elide turned her head and saw the crowd separating them part like the Red Sea, allowing Maeve to easily walk towards her.  “Elide, I’m so happy to see you!  How are you?”

In no mood to play this game tonight, and having lost her last fuck along with her last painkiller, Elide’s flipped Maeve the bird and kept walking.  

She’d just gotten the closet door open when she heard an indignant screech behind her, “ Excuse me? ”  Elide had her coat in hand when a pale, bony hand grabbed onto her shoulder and spun her around.  The quick movement, in combination with the footwear, made her ankle tweak sharply and Elide hissed.  “Who the hell do you think you are?”

Placing her weight on her good leg, Elide swatted Maeve’s hand off her shoulder. Trying to escape the situation, Elide stepped to the left and was blocked.  Stepped to the right and was blocked.  One more time to the left--nope.  Maeve wasn’t going to let her escape.  Exhaling through her nose, Elide looked into Maeve’s creepy violet eyes and said, “Let me go.”

“Or what, gimp?”  Maeve smirked cruelly down at her.  Or nothing, really.  Elide knew no self defense and had nothing to say to get the woman to back off.  All she had were her courtesies and a strong sense of self preservation.  Both of which were failing her tonight.

“What did you just say?”  A voice behind Maeve hissed, cold as ice and hard as iron.  Elide released a shaky breath.  She’d know that voice anywhere.  Maeve blinked once, twice, then turned to face Manon Blackbeak.  Manon freaking Blackbeak, leader of the Thirteen, Morrighan’s rumored heir, and Elide’s best friend.  Tilting her head to the side, and causing a cascade of white hair to fall over her shoulder, Manon looked two seconds away from sinking her teeth into Maeve’s throat.  

“Well, bitch ?”  Manon challenged, her golden eyes flashing dangerously.  

Maeve, braver or dumber than Elide would’ve expected, sneered in Manon’s face.  Taking a step closer, she leaned in, getting into the white haired woman’s face and taunted, “I said, she’s a gimp.”  Red lips stretching into a terrible smile, she continued, “Did you hear me that time?”

Manon’s face shuttered to a close.  Elide had seen that only once in her life before, when Manon had found out what abuse her grandmother had put Asterin through.  It didn’t end pretty then, and it wouldn’t end pretty now.  Before Elide could do anything to stop it, though, Manon said, “Yeah, I heard you,” and punched Maeve square in the face.

Hell broke loose in the middle of Aelin’s living room, and it lasted for all of one minute.  After Maeve’s head snapped back into its rightful position, and before she could retaliate, Lorcan grabbed her around her waist and pulled her out into the hallway.  The Thirteen, always waiting for a fight to break out with baited breath, pursued and cheered on their vengeful leader.  Manon cracked her knuckles and pursued her prey with a grin sharp enough to cut diamonds, and would have followed Lorcan and Maeve out the door if Elide hadn’t pulled her back.  

“Manon, no!”  She tugged sharply on the golden eyed woman’s arm.  Manon barred her teeth and tried to shrug the smaller woman off, but Elide was having none of it.  She may not have Manon’s insane strength or her courage, but she did have sense and logic.  And sense and logic were telling her to put a stop to this.  “ Manon. ”   

“What?”  She hissed, turning her fury on Elide.  Elide would not be cowed, though, not by Manon, not by anyone.  Her ankle may be lame, but she stood her ground as Manon asked, “You’re just going to let her talk about you like that?”

Taking a deep breath--she knew Manon was just trying to help, after all--Elide shook her head, “I don’t care what she says, Manon.  I don’t care.”

“I won’t let her--”

“It’s my battle,” Elide cut her off, her tone quiet but firm.  Dragging her hand down Manon’s arm until she found her hand, Elide gave it a squeeze, “Thank you for helping me earlier, but this is my battle, Manon.  Let me fight it.”

Manon pursued her lips, the blood draining from them as she digested what Elide said.  Finally, Manon nodded and stepped aside.  “Fine,” she bit out, “but,” she paused and returned the squeeze Elide had given earlier, “don’t forget that you have the Thirteen at your back.  You’re not alone.”

Giving her a wobbly smile, Elide nodded, “Thank you.” Double checking that she had everything she needed--coat, keys, spine made of iron--Elide exited the apartment.  

Maeve was leaning against the wall and Lorcan was trying to get her nose to stop bleeding by applying a tissue to it.  Hearing the door open, Maeve’s purple eyes snapped up to Elide’s.  Realizing who it was, the taller woman pushed Lorcan to the side and stepped forward, “Come to apologize, gimp?”

She stood as tall as the Gaelic queens of myth, looking down her bloody nose imperiously at Elide.  Maybe once upon a time that look--this woman --would have made Elide cower and flee, but that wasn’t the case today, and it would never be the case again.  Squaring her shoulders, Elide told her, “No, I haven’t.”  

“Maeve, you are,” she paused, thinking of how to properly say what she wanted to say, “you are vain, conceited, greedy-- no ,” she stopped Maeve before she could cut her off, pointing an accusatory finger at her.  “You have no empathy for anyone but yourself, you use people as though they’re pawns in some game.  You’re rude at best and abusive at worst, and you are the worst.

“I’d honestly prefer it if I never saw your face ever again, but as we’re neighbors, that’s highly unlikely.” Elide stopped to take a breath, her eyes never once leaving Maeve’s, “That being said, if I ever hear you call me gimp again, or try to stop me from leaving someplace again, I will sue you for harassment.”  She paused again, this time to let her words sink in.  Elide was not kidding in the slightest, she would take Maeve to court in a heartbeat.

“I’ve been through a lot of shit, Maeve,” she told her solemnly, “but because of that shit, I have a wonderful bulldog of a lawyer on retainer who will happily set up a restraining order against you and send it to you at your workplace in front of all your colleagues and bosses.  Now,” she folded her hands in front of her calmly and took a deep breath, “it’s time for you to leave.”  

Maeve opened her mouth, the darkness in her eyes leaving no doubt in Elide’s mind the venom she was about to spew, and braced herself for whatever barrage of hate she was about to receive.  Before Maeve could even let out one syllable, though, a different voice chimed in.  “That’s enough, Maeve,” Lorcan said, his hands shoved into his pockets, and his shoulders tight with tension.  “It’s time to go.”

Excuse me?”  Maeve growled, turning her ire on her boyfriend.  Stepping up to him, she poked her finger into his chest, “You don’t get to decide when it’s time to go, got it?   I do.   I’m the one in charge,” she hissed, her teeth gnashing together, “ don’t forget it. ”   

Sneering, Lorcan kept his gaze towards the floor, focused on his feet.  “Give it a rest, Maeve, all right?  You can’t always have it your way.  You can’t always win.”

“I can’t, can I?”  Elide thought Maeve was going to erupt lava and pumice, what with how red her face was turning.  “It’s all or nothing with me, Lorcan, remember?  Now what are you going to choose,” she took a step back and waved her arm in front of herself, “all?” She paused, then waved towards Elide, “Or nothing?”  

There was a moment of silence, a brief moment, where Lorcan thought of his answer.  Elide watched the sick game play out, sure he’d buckle and go back to Maeve’s side as he had every other time before.  

“Anything but you,” he said finally, raising his eyes to meet Maeve’s.  With a grimace, he shook his head, “God, anything but you.”

Blood draining from her face faster than could possibly be healthy, Maeve stared, dumbfounded at her now ex-boyfriend. Blinking once, then twice, Maeve flicked some hair over her shoulder, shot one last glare at Elide and left with her shoulders back and her chin held high.

Once she was no longer in sight, Lorcan released the most feeble sigh Elide had ever heard and sunk down to the floor. “What a mess,” he mumbled, dragging a hand down his face.

Elide considered walking away.   Just leave him on the floor , she told herself, and walk away.  It wasn’t like she owed him anything, but her heart still clenched at the idea of just abandoning him on the hallway floor.  Memories of the last party they’d been at together--had that really been eight months ago?--began popping up in her mind like spring daisies.  He really had been a different person, then.  Quiet and a bit shy, but considerate and nice in his own, albeit strange way.

Biting down on her bottom lip, Elide stared down at the dark haired man a moment longer before asking, “So what now?”

Leaning his head back against the wall, Lorcan peered up at her through half lidded eyes and shrugged, “Don’t know.  I can’t go home tonight, that’s for sure.”  Seeing her concerned frown, he added, “Don’t worry, I’ve got friends,” he jerked his thumb towards Rowan’s apartment door, “I’ve got somewhere to go.”

“You could come back to my place,” Elide blurted out.  A raging blush crept across her cheeks after she realized what she’d just said.  Eyes wide, she tried to backtrack, “What I mean is--ah, I was leaving anyway, and if you didn’t want to hang out here we could go and watch a movie or something,” oh god, she was rambling now and she could not stop.  “I was thinking of ordering a pizza, but now that I think of it, since Maeve’s my neighbor, you probably wouldn’t want to go back there anyway, so--” Lorcan’s laugh, deep and low and barely audible finally got Elide’s verbal vomit to stop.

“Thanks for the offer, Elide,” he said, looking up at her with eyes that were too warm, too affectionate to be meant for her.  Elide gulped, “but . . . I don’t think that’d be a good idea.”

“Ah, right--right.”  Of course he didn’t want to hang out with her.  He’d just broken up with his girlfriend--what had she been thinking?  Inviting him to her place like that.  What a disastrous idea.  “Well, um, I’ll see you around then.”  She paused, then added, “Happy New Year.”

“Elide, wait--” She’d only taken two steps when Lorcan’s voice stopped her.  Turning around, she saw that he was standing now, his hands once again shoved deep into his pockets.  She wondered if that was a nervous habit of his.  His face was pinched, and his eyes looking anywhere but at her.

“Yeah?”  Elide asked, prompting him to continue.

“Do you--I mean, do you want to stay, maybe?  For a bit longer?”  He was looking at her now, and what she saw stole the breath right out of her lungs.  He looked so unsure, so shy, so unlike what she was used to.  It reminded her of that first night.  When she’d shown him how to paint Easter eggs.

Looking back at Aelin’s door, Elide thought about what she wanted.  The music and laughter from the party could be heard even out in the hallway, and Elide knew she did not want to go back to that.  But, she realized as she returned her gaze to Lorcan, finding his brown eyes beseeching hers, she did want to spend more time with him.  “Sure,” she said slowly, “but on one condition.”  Lorcan raised a questioning brow.  Smiling tentatively, she nodded her head towards the end of the hall, “Follow me.”

Lorcan didn’t hesitate, immediately falling into step beside her as she led him to the stairwell and up several flights until they reached the roof.  Using her coat to keep the door propped open so they wouldn’t be locked out, Elide felt something fall onto her nose. “Ah!” She exclaimed, looking up at the sky, “It’s snowing!” Rubbing her arms vigorously, she tried to keep herself warm while thinking what else they could use besides her jacket to keep them from getting locked out.

Suddenly something warm and slightly scratchy was placed on her shoulders.  Looking down, Elide saw it was Lorcan’s jacket.  Her cheeks were turning hot again--something that had nothing to with the weather or the scratchy apparel and everything to do with the man standing beside her--and all of a sudden Elide could no longer feel the cold.  She smiled at him, “Thanks.”

He nodded in reply, then, after a beat of silence, said, “I like your dress.”

Snorting, Elide grinned, “Thanks, I hate it.”

Eyes widening with surprise, Lorcan’s lips pulled back into an easy grin and he laughed.  Again, the sound was barely audible, but it still made Elide’s heart swell with pride, knowing she had been the reason for it. Taking in his surroundings, Lorcan stepped out further onto the roof, closer to the edge.  “It’s beautiful up here.”

“Yeah,” Elide whispered, coming to stand next to him.  Aelin had shown her this spot ages ago.  She said it was the reason she chose to move into the building.  Although it was dark, it gave them a perfect view of Rifthold, the yellow lights of buildings illuminating the otherwise black landscape. With the snow coming down, it made Elide feel as if they were living in a snow globe.  

Placing her hands on the security railing of the roof, Elide snuck a glance at Lorcan out of the corner of her eye.  He was staring intently at the skyline in front of him, his face looking more peaceful than she’d ever seen it before.  Turning his head to face her, Elide muffled a squeak and turned her gaze forward.  Suddenly, from all around them, shouts and hollers reached their ears.  “Guess it’s midnight,” she said softly.  Others might feel the need to bring in the New Year with a vicious roar of thunder, but in this moment, this peaceful, quiet moment, Elide just couldn’t bring herself to join them.

“Yeah,”  Lorcan said, bringing his hand up to rest atop hers.  Snapping her eyes up to his, Elide watched as a very small, but very real and warm, smile settled over his face.  “Happy New Year, Elide.”

She smiled back at him, hers full of the same warmth and with heaps of hope, “Happy New Year, Lorcan.”

Maybe this holiday wasn’t so pointless after all.

Chapter Text

All Rowan wanted was some peace and quiet.  Some peace and quiet, and some alone time with Aelin. But no, he thought with a frown, that wasn’t in the cards for him.

He wasn’t sure what, exactly, he had done to piss off some god in a past life, but it must’ve been something terrible because for the last six or so months, his life had been a living nightmare.  After Lorcan’s official breakup with Maeve back in January, the dark haired man had been rooming with Rowan. It had made sense at the time, since Rowan was Lorcan’s only friend in town, and he couldn’t exactly go back to the apartment he’d shared with Maeve.

But that had been six months ago. And although Lorcan was a quiet man--a man that only really spoke when insulting someone--six months was a long time.

Then there was Elide, who was a perfectly nice and polite girl.  Rowan had nothing bad to say about her , per se.  But she and Lorcan had started dating three months ago.  Which, again, would have been fine if Lorcan had his own place.  But he didn’t, and it turned out that the dark haired couple could be a bit . . . loud, when together.  And they were together a lot since Maeve was still Elide’s next door neighbor.

And who could forget about his other friends?  His cadre? Who liked to just pop in and say hi whenever any of them were travelling through or near Rifthold.  Rowan didn’t know how they did it, but somehow they always managed to stop by the few nights when Lorcan was out and Aelin was over.  Vaughan had even somehow managed to let himself in one night while he and Aelin were in bed together.

A growl almost ripped its way out of his chest at the mere memory of that night.  

Shaking his head, Rowan glanced over at his bathroom door and sighed at the steam leaking out.  Elide had stayed the night--again--and had asked to use the shower first thing in the morning because she had to go to work.  At the time, Rowan had thought nothing of it and had told her it was fine. He wasn’t supposed to meet up with Aelin until after ten, anyway, so it should have worked out fine.

Should , being the key word.

Rubbing a hand down his face, Rowan should have known that nothing was ever so easy.  Not for him, at least. At some point during her shower, Lorcan had snuck in and joined Elide.  From the moans and grunts echoing down the hall, it was obvious that the shower was no longer being used for cleaning purposes.  

It was almost ten now, so Rowan wasn’t surprised at all when he heard a series of three knocks against his front door.  Opening it, the white haired man came face to face with Aelin.

“Hey,” she raised a brow at his disheveled appearance.  He hadn’t even had a chance to brush his teeth yet. Taking in his glare and frowning lips, she asked, “Wake up on the wrong side of the nest this morning, Buzzard?”

Lips flickering up, just for a moment, Rowan huffed out a laugh.  Ever since Aelin had learned of his fascination with birds--and found his binoculars and bird-watchers guide book--she’d begun to call him that.   Buzzard .  At first it was meant to tease, but somewhere down the line it had become a term of endearment.  

Rowan shrugged, “I haven’t had a chance to get into the bathroom yet.”

“What?”  Aelin raised herself onto her tip-toes, trying to peek over his shoulder, “Why not?”  A series of giggles, which then morphed into a deep throated moan was her answer. Blue and gold eyes widening, Aelin’s jaw dropped. “Oh my gods, was that Elide ?”    

Rowan groaned.  He knew that spark in her eyes.  Aelin was enjoying this. Or, more specifically, enjoying his reaction to it.  

“Damn that girl’s got a pair of lungs on her!”  Aelin forced a hand over her mouth to stop a bubbling cackle.  

Pushing his girlfriend out into the hall, back towards her own apartment, Rowan closed his door behind him.  “This isn’t funny.”

“You’re right, it’s hilarious!”  She grinned up at him, her eyes still alight with mischief and mirth.  Looking up into his green eyes, she sobered her expression and rubbed her thumb down his forehead, pressing out the wrinkles she found there.  “Hey, Rowan, come one, it’s not that serious.”

“I know, I know,” he did know.  Lorcan was just enjoying himself.  And Rowan should feel relieved that one of his closest friends had finally gotten out of a toxic relationship and entered a healthy one.  One with a fantastic girl like Elide, but, “It’s just . . .” he sighed and shook his head.

“Just what?”  Bringing her other hand the to the back of his neck, Aelin curled her fingers around the short locks of white hair and pulled gently.  

“They’re just always here,” he admitted quietly. Rowan wasn't one for complaining. Not out loud, at least. But here, with Aelin, he knew he could tell her anything, about anyone, and she wouldn't judge him for it. It was why he loved her so much. One of the reasons, at least.

Aelin hummed, using the grip on the back of his neck to bring him down closer so he could kiss him. “I may have a solution for that, if you'd like to hear it.”

“I'm all ears,” he whispered, the tension bleeding out of his body with every breath he shared with her.

Biting down in her lower lip, Aelin tried to hide her excitement. “Well, what do you think about moving in with me?”

Seeing Rowan's brows raise, she hurried on, “I know you just renewed your lease a few months ago, but we've been dating for over a year now and there's not really a point to exchanging keys when we live right across the hall from each other right? And I know I have a lot of parties and a lot of friends that like to pop in, but I can lessen the parties of they're really an issue, and my friends always let me know if they're coming over first. And I thought Lorcan could sublet your apartment, since he's already in there and hasn't really been looking for another place and--”

Pressing his mouth firmly against hers, Rowan stopped the avalanche of words. Smiling into the kiss, he traced her lips with his tongue. Feeling Aelin sigh and open her mouth, Rowan pulled away. “Aelin,” he smiled at her, at this wonderful fireheart that had become a beacon of light in his dark life. He didn't know what god had blessed him, and brought her into his world, but he'd thank them every day for it. “I'd love to move in with you.”

Chapter Text

Nesryn scanned these street, looking both ways for a gap between the speeding cars. Steeling her jaw when she saw an opening, the baker's daughter took off for the other side. A car honked.  Its horn, although loud and blaring, barely stood out against the other noises made by the city. 

Tightening her grip on the paper bag in her hand, Nesryn heading up into the apartment building before her, taking the stairs two at a time. It wasn't even mid-morning yet but Nesryn could tell today was gearing up to be a good one. So good she almost felt like humming.

She'd started her day early running with Aelin and Fleetfoot while the sky had still been dark. Aelin, being the borderline psychotic competitor that she was, called it the "beat the sun run". It was silly and tiring, but fun, too, and they always ended the race by stopping at the bakery Nesryn's father owned. 

The two of them had gotten some cinnamon buns as a reward, and they'd been so good Nesryn grabbed two more to share with Sartaq and Borte. The three were supposed to meet up later that day at the archery range.

She had some time, though, and since she was currently closer to Chaol's place than her own, she figured she'd stop by to see him. She hoped he was home. It was still pretty early, but Chaol and Aelin were practically cut from the same fabric when it came to work outs. 

Nesryn halted, wondering if she should text him first. His door was just down the hallway, though, so she might as well continue on. Of course, she thought wryly, the one time I try to be a good girlfriend and he's not even home .

Shaking her head, she pulled out the key Chaol had given her ages ago and entered the apartment. "Chaol?" She called out, expecting him to be in his room or perhaps in the bathroom. Back to the rest of the apartment, she placed the cinnamon buns on the kitchen counter and kicked off her shoes. "I thought I'd stop by before heading to the range. Maybe we could--"

"Hi, Nesryn."

Nesryn words died her in mouth, their ghosts fell from her tongue. She knew that voice, and it didn't belong to Chaol.

Turning around to face the speaker, Nesryn greeted, "Hi Yrene." She swallowed, "What brings you here so early?"

Fingers twisting awkwardly, Yrene shrugged then nodded to the couch in the living room. "Therapy ran a little late last night. Chaol offered me his couch."

Midnight eyes flicked over to the living room. The couch did look like someone had slept on it. The back pillows had been removed and several sheets laid over it. Yrene wasn't lying about where she slept, and yet that didn't ease the strange weight growing in the pit of Nesryn's belly.

"How's his back?" Nesryn asked, because she didn't know what else to say. Yrene had been Chaol's physical therapist for almost six months now, ever since a car accident had almost left him paralyzed. The woman truly was a miracle worker, and Chaol was practically as good as new.

"Good--it's good." Yrene looked around the apartment, her eyes refusing to land on Nesryn. "He should be able to walk without the cane soon enough."

Nesryn nodded, and a suffocating silence took up the space between them. Although Yrene and Chaol had grown close during their time together, the same couldn't be said for the two women. Nesryn didn't dislike Yrene, per say, she just didn't know her. Nor did she try to, if she were being honest with herself.

"Chaol's in the shower," Yrene said and then immediately winced. A pretty blush dusted itself over her golden brown cheeks and Nesryn had to bite back a sigh. "I mean--"

"It's okay," Nesryn shrugged. Jamming her feet back into her shoes--the heels were flattened, but she'd fix them later--she grabbed her bag of baked goods and said, "I have to head out anyway. Tell him I'll call later?"

Before Yrene could so much as nod her head, Nesryn was out of the apartment. The door closed softly behind her and as it did, Nesryn felt a weight lift from her chest. Shaking her head, Nesryn pulled out her phone. She scrolled through picture after picture until she found Sartaq’s goofy smile. A small smile found its way onto her lips and she pressed the green call button. 

He picked up on the second ring. "Hey," she greeted quickly as she hustled down the hallway and back towards the street. "Mind if we meet up now?”

“Sure,” he said, his voice still sleepy.  Nesryn winced, realizing she must have woken him up.   She was about to take it back, to let him go back to bed, when he continued, “I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”

Nesryn took a deep breath and found herself stopping in the middle of an intersection.  She could just tell him to forget it, that she wasn’t thinking, but instead, very softly, she said, “Thanks.”

A horn blared, making the dark haired girl flinch.  The driver honked his horn again, his muffled shouts of anger and derision still audible even with all his windows closed. Ending the call, Nesryn quickly continued on her way.

After two trains, one bus, a bit of walking, and another train, Nesryn finally exited Adarlan and entered Antica.  Sometimes the trip was quick and painless, taking less than twenty minutes, and other times, like today, it took nearly an hour.  Huffing as she ran, Nesryn arrived at The Aerie with a stitch in her side and a wince on her lips.  

"Sartaq," she greeted breathlessly once she found him waiting on a bench inside the lobby. "I'm so sorry I'm late."

Shrugging, Sartaq gave her an easy smile, "No biggie. Were you coming from Westfall’s or something?"

Yrene Towers flashed through her mind, and Nesryn grimaced.

Dark eyes narrowed, "What happened?"

"Nothing," Nesryn shook her head, unsure of what to say. In truth, she was unsure of everything. Finding Yrene in Chaol's apartment so early like she had . . . it hadn't made her angry. It hadn't even made her sad, but that was the problem. Nesryn didn't feel anything. Why don't I feel anything? She wondered.

Running a hand through her short hair, Nesryn changed the subject by shoving the bag of baked goods into his arms.  “Cinnamon buns,” she said shortly, “from the bakery. There’s one for you and Borte.” She looked out the back window at the patrons shooting their arrows at a variety of targets.  “Borte’s still coming right?”

“Probably,” Sartaq said, opening the brown paper bag and taking a small sniff.  “She might even bring Yeren since she spent the night as his place.”

“They are the weirdest couple.”  Nesryn had never seen a couple fight more.  They argued over everything, from where they sat in the movie theaters to who ordered first at a restaurant.  And yet, she countered, they actually seem happy with each other.  

“Yeah,” Sartaq was already several bites into the bun by the time he responded to her comment, “it’s like opposites attract.  Or a kinky thing for them.” Nesryn blinked, but didn’t have a chance to fully process what her friend had said before he asked, “Now, what’s going on with you and Westfall?”

There was a glint in Sartaq’s eyes.  Nesryn knew it well. It was a sign that he’d dug his heels in and wouldn’t be appeased until he’d gotten answers.  And while Nesryn found it slightly inconvenient for it to be aimed at her, her heart began to thunder in her ears at the sight of it. 

“Can we just,” Nesryn started, but then paused when she saw his lips pursue.  Changing tactics, she asked, “Can we at least shoot something first?”

Sartaq relented, and they rented out their bows and quivers and headed out onto the grounds.  The pair made their way past dozens of archers, and almost all of them took the time to greet or wave hello to Sartaq.  That’s what happens , she supposed, when you’re the son of a billionaire.  Sartaq’s father, Urus Khagan, practically owned all of Antica. He had a hand in every inch of its politics, and nothing happened in the city without him knowing about it. And even though Sartaq and his father weren’t exactly close, people still cosied up to him, knowing he had his father’s ear.

Nesryn and Sartaq set up base all the way at the end of The Aerie’s property, as far away from other people as they could get. Urus’ son could rub elbows with the best of them, but right now neither archer felt very social.  

Knocking her arrow, Nesryn took a deep breath, then let it loose.  The arrow’s aim was true, and punctured through the ear of a dummy deer.

Sartaq whistled, “Going for the ye already?  What’d Westfall do this time? Cheat on you or something?”  Nesryn said nothing and simply readied another arrow. “Wait--shit.  Really?”

Relaxing the bow string, Nesryn bit down on her lower lip.  “No, not really.” She told him what she saw, what she walked into this morning and then waited.  Bow and arrow aimed at the ground, Nesryn waited for her friend to speak.

Arms crossed over his chest, Sartaq cocked his head, “So he didn’t cheat?  I’m confused.”

Lips twisting, Nesryn tried to explain, “I don’t think they did anything, but I think,” her mouth was dry all of a sudden.  “I think they wanted to.” They’d been close for some time now, Nesryn had noticed. And Chaol seemed happier around her. Happier than he’d been with her in ages.

“You seem oddly okay with that.”

Looking down at her feet, a battle occured within herself as she determined how much to tell Sartaq.  He’s your best friend, her mind reasoned.  If you can’t tell him, then who can you tell?

“It would’ve been easier,” she confessed, her eyes still honed in on her feet.  “If they had. To break up, I mean.”

Even without looking at him, Nesryn would tell Sartaq had gone deathly still. Tightening the grip on her bow, she rushed to explain, “Chaol and I just haven’t . . . there hasn’t been anything between us for a long time now.”  She kicked at the grass beneath her feet and began to pace. “Not since he gave me a key to his place--longer, even. But we’ve been together for so long now, I don’t think either of us knows how to end things, and--”

“So you don’t love him?”

“What?”  Nesryn stopped her pacing and finally looked up at Sartaq.  His dark eyes were bright and intense. It was like looking into a black hole where you could just barely make out where the star used to be.  His gaze was all encompassing and enticing, and, Nesryn realized belatedly, much closer than she’d originally thought. Their chests were almost pressed together now, and Nesryn had to crane her neck a bit to see him properly. 

Sartaq cocked his head to the side, making his long dark hair spill over his shoulder.  Nesryn’s breath caught at the sight of it. “You don’t love Westfall?”

“No,” Nesryn answered, the truth of it escaping from her lips took a weight off her shoulders as well.  It was why she didn’t feel anything back at the apartment. Why the possibility of Chaol cheating on her didn’t affect her in the slightest. “We never even said that--I love you.  It just,” again, that weird feeling settled in the bottom of her stomach. “It never came up.”  

“I would tell you,” Sartaq said, his voice so soft that Nesryn found herself rising up onto her tiptoes to hear better.  

Then, his words sank in.  “What?” She asked, her voice just as soft.

Sartaq’s face was close, so close she could feel his breath fan against her face.  “If you’d have me, I’d say those words to you everyday for the rest of my life.”

The bow and arrow dropped from Nesryn’s hands.  Does he--is he--?   Her mind tried to make sense of what Sartaq was trying to say.  Patiently he waited, his dark eyes trained on her own. His tongue flickered out to wet his bottom lip, and Nesryn felt more feeling in her body in that one moment for Sartaq than she had felt for Chaol in their entire relationship.

“Let me say those words, Nesryn.  Say yes,” Sartaq whispered as he brought his hand up to cup the side of her neck.  Her heart beat, beat, beat, until, Nesryn swore, it stopped altogether. Then, like an arrow to the heart, he ended her by saying, “Please.”

Closing the distance between them, Nesryn sighed into his mouth as his lips met hers.  So this is what it feels like , she wondered, amazed. Opening her mouth to tug on his bottom lip with her teeth, Nesryn pulled away as Sartaq released a deep-throated moan.  Kissing her way up his cheek and towards his ear, Nesryn whispered, “Yes.”

A shudder rippled through Sartaq’s back and his arms quickly wound around Nesryn’s frame, pulling her in even closer.  Resting his forehead against hers, Sartaq smiled. It was large and gleeful, full of victory and adoration. Sartaq leaned in to kiss her forehead, then her eyes.  Her nose, then one cheek and then the other. He went to kiss her lips again, but pulled away at the last moment, leaving Nesryn waiting.

Laughing, he kissed her quickly once, then twice.  “I love you, Nesryn Faliq.” Thrice.

Nesryn laughed too.  How had she not seen it?  How had she not realized? Shaking her head, she banished the thought away.  Not wanting to waste any more time, Nesryn cupped Sartaq’s face in both hands and said, “And I love you.”